Tuesday 23 April 2019

On demand: "Shirkers"

The Sundance-feted documentary Shirkers belies its initially dreamy, scatty voiceover to tell a story that eventually connects up with several themes floating around in the zeitgeist. It opens, however, with a woman now in her early forties - the film's director Sandi Tan - looking back on her formative days in the hot, stifling, censorious Singapore of the late 1980s. The teenage Tan was a passionate cinephile with a particular love for the emergent American independent cinema - films one would have to go out of one's way to experience in a place where the Government routinely banned such provocations as chewing gum. Still, Tan persevered, and at some stage in the early 1990s, she recruited a small and devoted band of friends and fellow travellers to shoot "Shirkers", a microbudget road movie inspired by the US trip she'd taken in the company of her college professor, a mysterious, rather unplaceable fellow by the name of Georges Cardona. How that production came to unravel forms the meat of this tale, and is best left for you to discover; all I'll say here is that there are reasons why the doc became a small phenomenon among the denizens of Film Twitter. It's not just that Tan is easily embraced as one of us (a teenage cinephile who flirted with production before becoming a critic); it's that her story mirrors the sometimes fractious relations between cinephilia's male and female contingents.

The revelations come late on, and then thick and fast. What's positioned upfront is notable for its zippy, peppy style. A graduate of those punk fanzines that circulated among the Singaporean underground, Tan here introduces herself to a wider audience as a notably gifted collagist, energetically stitching together childhood odds and sods (the diaries, the posters, the angry missives composed in pink felt tip) to corroborate her truth. The clips we see of "Shirkers" the fiction, complete with dancing dogs and Luhrmann-pipping shots through fish tanks, display a marked fondness for bold colours and off-kilter framing; in indie terms, they would suggest the David Lynch of Blue Velvet remaking Jim Jarmusch's touchstone Stranger than Paradise. (Bottom line: we will all have suffered through far less promising student films - and Tan makes a point of contrasting "Shirkers" with the hackneyed professional films coming out of Singapore at that time. Royston Tan and Eric Khoo, whose films proposed some kind of Singaporean New Wave when they slinked off the festival circuit and into Western cinemas in the early Noughties, were themselves making their bones at this stage.) What we don't know, and what only becomes clear in the documentary's second half, is that we're lucky indeed that any of these images survived. 

Tan emerges as an exceptionally patient and inventive storyteller, relaying the facts in her own idiosyncratically sing-song voice (no surprise to learn she achieved success as a novelist before returning to movies) while finding funny surrogates for the increasingly elusive Cardona: the villains defeated by local heroine Cleopatra Wong, say, or puppets that speak to the young Sandi's love of Jim Henson. What's clear is that cinephilia, the keeping of some kind of faith, allowed Tan to retain a kind of innocence through the rocky rite-of-passage that second half describes. Given the betrayal this entails, it wouldn't be especially hard to imagine an angrier retelling of this story, yet our narrator comes over as part-Agnès Varda, part-Nancy Drew, following a decade's worth of clues to solve a mystery, while insisting things will work out for the best; her tone is less bitter than bittersweet. Another reason Shirkers may have been taken so to heart: unlike so much online and real-life interaction, it does wind up with a happy ending of sorts. It becomes clear that Professor Cardona taught Sandi and her pals lessons no-one was paying him to teach: that men can be colossal timewasters and dreamwreckers, and that women are often obliged to work twice as hard to get anywhere within an industry that began as a boys' club, and became a playground for chancers, swindlers and frauds. The happy ending is that Tan finally brought a movie called "Shirkers" to the screen; you'll just have to grit your teeth at the realisation it was a quarter-century after it should have been with us.

Shirkers is now available to stream via Netflix.

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