If films are your passion, there’s a high chance that, like me, you’ve often dreamed about making a film. Of directing, writing and creating a little bit of art that you’re convinced will change the world, or at the very least, your life. For three teenage girls growing up in Singapore in the early nineties, this dream became a reality. Just not the way they expected.
Sandi Tan and her two childhood friends Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique Harvey decided to make a film. Three young women, with dreams of conquering the film industry they dreamt big – a road movie about a serial killer in a country which could be driven around in under an hour. But after the two month production is over, the director and the girls’ film teacher Georges Cardona disappears and takes all the footage with him.
What follows is a heart-breaking tale of betrayal, ambition, and finally resolution. Sandi Tan conducts interviews with the major players of the film, confronting difficult questions about her own behaviour twenty years ago, as well as unpicking the impact that the film had and could have had on all of their lives.
Shirkers is an unapologetic love letter to the madness, energy and genius of youth as this trio of girls with not much more than a burning ambition to change the film industry go about making a bold, inventive and unique piece of cinema. It’s hard not to mourn what could have been as you watch clips from the original Shirkers, the intensity and vibrancy of this film as it meanders slowly through the streets of Singapore. It’s a mixture of old letters and notes, interviews and film footage, all shot through the hazy gaze of youth.
Georges is an almost ghostly figure throughout, captured on the edges of frames and in the rear-view mirror of a car, piercing eyes always holding something back. He is the antagonist, compared to Nosferatu by Tan towards the end – an apt comparison – but the documentary goes further into his life, and uncovering a man that was as desperate for glory as he was for mystery, and who was willing to step on anyone’s dreams to achieve it. It’s hard not to feel betrayed by Georges yourself, his willingness to leech ideas and ambition and a whole film from three talented, inventive young women who did nothing wrong other than to trust him.
But the film isn’t a melancholic look back at the past, but a vibrant, colourful exploration of the power of youth, as well as an exploration of a Singapore that was on the edge of change as it moved into the twenty-first century. Tan and Ng talk about the censorship issues during their childhood, and the changing landscape that forced Tan’s family home to be replaced by upper-class flats. The original film of Shirkers is a statement against that, a love letter to the colourful and vibrant Singapore of Tan’s youth, a country that punches above it’s weight while also retaining these beautiful veins of originality.
The hypnotic colours of the original Shirkers seep into every frame of the documentary though fluorescent typography and a simple yet eerie instrumental soundtrack. It’s a lovely crafted film, something that will spark or reinvigorate a love of film, an appreciation for the brilliance of teenage girls, and a nostalgic sense of loss for a film that never was.