Shirkers () was going to be Singapore’s first indie film, a road movie set in Singapore (!) about the quirky adventures of teenage assassin S., made by teenagers Sandi Tan, Jasmine Ng, and Sophia Siddique under the mentorship of White guy Georges Cardona—a charismatic man of mysterious background who directed the film, and who absconded with the raw footage after it wrapped. Shirkers (2018) is a documentary about this series of events, prompted by the rediscovery of the footage in pristine condition after Cardona’s death. Alas, Shirkers the narrative feature wasn’t to be, as the audio tracks are still lost, or were deliberately disposed of. But that’s okay: Shirkers the documentary is already full of creative magic.
The macrostructure of the documentary is straightforward: intro, biographical background, film production, things go wrong, rediscovery, brief exploration of Cardona, and a reflective conclusion, all propped up by interviews and archival materials. What’s truly eye-opening is the microstructure, born like most classic art out of necessity. The documentary is about a film, so numerous clips are expected, but the clips have no sound. What to do? Writer-director-producer (and writer-star of the narrative feature) Sandi Tan’s solution is inspired: Rather than seek to recreate the audio, she only adds sounds that are relevant to the point at hand, and the sounds themselves are not mimetic but signifying. The sound of a car horn is obviously not from a car in the scene, but we understand that said car’s horn was supposed to honk. Thus, the sound has the same aural effect as the visual design of the film, of which the poster is representative. Throughout the life of the three friends—Tan, Ng, and Siddique—their underground magazines and written correspondence display an idiosyncratic mix of cut-out collage and hyperstylized handwriting. This design, alongside the vibrant colors and quirky, instinctive camerawork of the original film (by cinematographer Ronnie Lee), create the youthful-cum-nostalgic aura that made Shirkers () a cause célèbre during its production, a style the film calls punk. (In an interview, Tan says the colors had to be toned down during digital transition, which is . . . wow.)
More than about a film, this is a documentary about the period of time in which Tan et al. were making a film, an exploration of a personal past with Shirkers () as MacGuffin. And since that film was never edited, Tan (and fellow editors Lucas Celler and Kimberley Hassett) feels free to select discontinuous snippets for her documentary. Indeed, the documentary feels the need early on to summarize the original plot. But rather than ending up an unwieldy mess, this deconstruction frees Tan up to anchor the film with an emotional throughline, which is then backed by judicious use of music, especially a haunting rendition of Weish’s “Tick Tick” and by the feel-good nostalgic “Shirkers Theme” from the original by Ben Harrison (both remixed and arranged by Ishai Adar). The chronological order of events is kept crystal clear, and the passing of time is underscored by giving different descriptors of the same interviewees depending on what they did during the period of time in question.
Lastly, there’s the mysterious case of Georges Cardona. As it turns out, even his own (ex-)wife didn’t discover his true birthday and age until he died. All we know for sure is that he was Colombian, started out in New Orleans, and had been pulling a similar schtick wherever he went: mentoring aspiring filmmakers and foster their dreams before sabotaging their work at the last moment. Like The Tale (2018) but more intellectual and slightly less creepy, Shirkers (2018) reveals itself, in its obsession with Cardona, to be attempting to exorcise a formative demon. Such an exorcism will never cease to be necessary, but the completion of this documentary marks a personal milestone, not to mention a recovered piece of world cinema history.