Film history is full of women who never got to tell their stories, either because the door was never opened for them or because it was opened then shut in their face. The new documentary Shirkers, now on Netflix, is the origin story of director Sandi Tan’s teenage filmmaking scheme and what happened when a deceptive man disappeared with the project for 20 years.
As a teenager in Singapore, Tan and her friends were enviously rebellious. They chewed gum even though it had recently been made illegal. They wrote for punk magazines and started their own. But what Tan and her friends Jasmine Ng and Sophia Siddique Harvey wanted most was to make a movie. They found an opportunity in a mysterious but alluring older American man named Georges, who claimed to have substantial connections in the film world.
Despite their lack of experience — and the general lack of filmmaking in Singapore — the teenagers wrote, produced, and starred in a road movie called Shirkers about a teen killer. With Georges directing, Harvey producing, Ng editing, and Tan starring as the killer, they somehow turned a very unlikely dream into a reality.
But behind the whole project was the slick manipulation of Georges, with his cold eyes, soft voice, and unplaceable accent. He was the exact type of snake oil salesman parents warn their girls about, full of charm and intoxicating lies. When the project was done, he promised to get it edited, but the women never heard from him. He held onto the footage reels until his death. They’d made a movie but were left only with the foggy memories of its creation.
The film reels emerge after Georges’ death and are returned to Tan. They don’t have sound, but the footage is real, not the vivid hallucination of the past 20 years. Weaving together clips from the movie, backed by an eerie score, and interviews with Ng and Harvey, as well as crew from the original Shirkers, Tan tries to answer tough questions about the movie and about Georges. It’s a collage of their past and present selves, held together by a secret they never wanted to keep.
While watching this movie, you'll wonder if the original Shirkers would’ve actually been a good movie or if it’s just excellent myth-making. Plenty of teenagers make their own movies, and they’re expectedly shitty. But the more Tan describes the story and shows the colorful, eccentric, inventive visuals, it becomes clear that the original Shirkers would’ve been in some sort of film canon had it been released.
In talking about the loss, Harvey, who is now head of the film department at Vassar College, calls their project “the ghost in between the lines of books written on Singapore film history.” Because of a man’s deranged ego, the world never got to see the original Shirkers as it was intended, but we get this version — a bittersweet gift.