REVIEW: Shirkers (2018 – Documentary)

Release Poster – Netflix

The following is a review of the Netflix Documentary Shirkers — Directed by Sandi Tan.

In the early 1990s, a group of teenage Singaporean cinephiles became filmmakers when they wrote, cast, produced, and shot their independent road movie, Shirkers. Though the film was directed by their American mentor Georges Cardona, the premise and the script came from Sandi Tan who also played the protagonist. As Sandi Tan waited to go into post-production on Shirkers, Cardona, who was in possession of the film reels, ignored her and disappeared out of nowhere with the film — leaving her and her friends empty-handed and without the film that a film critic friend of theirs thought was childish but ahead of its time. 

In Shirkers — this documentary, and not the aforementioned missing narrative feature — Sandi Tan, the documentary director and narrator, talks us through the experience of getting to know Cardona, making the film together, and her perspective of the matter when Cardona absconded with the footage. Then, around the documentary’s halfway point, the documentary turns into a bit of an investigative documentary as Sandi tries to figure out who her mentor really was, and why she had to wait until he died to find the footage of her road movie.

This is not really a deep mystery with a particularly satisfying reveal (though it absolutely is a mystery). I was disappointed for the filmmakers and upset by what Cardona had done to them. But life got in the way of a conclusion that would make us all feel warm and bubbly inside, which doesn’t mean that the ending isn’t good or satisfying. The film just does not have that great true crime aha-moment. But it does have plenty of tell-tale signs of a true crime or mystery documentary. I mean, just look at the editing which highlights disappearing figures or the music which is haunting, playful, and, at times, even scary.

Shirkers is a film about the people that disappear out of our lives, the people we leave behind, and the importance of the existence of some palpable proof of a certain time of our lives. On top of all of this, the documentary is also about a talentless, unoriginal man in a position of power who toyed with bright and brilliant young women for no reason in particular other than ownership. Cardona was a man obsessed with film, who had built his own personality on characters. In absconding with evidence, he became the film.

In taking their film away from them, Cardona took away a life’s work. In getting it back, Sandi Tan gets to look back on a time in her life where her friendships were neatly organized around something — a time when they were together and life allowed them to be. Where she and her friends are now scattered around the world, they were once together and all focused around a single passion. The film appropriately ends with a tribute to her friends, who didn’t always get the attention they deserved.

Satisfyingly, the closing credits are played over a scene from the film wherein the characters go through a car-wash. Having made it through to the other side, she’s new and hopeful. The filmmaker is freed from the devastating loss of her film. Shirkers is about many things at once, and the existence of this documentary may be the best filmmaking example of turning lemons into lemonade that I have seen.

Documentary director Sandi Tan has given us a visually interesting, deeply personal and unique documentary. Many people will see themselves in the women who were robbed of their film, but for a variety of different reasons. Some will feel attached to the idea of reframing and reclaiming our own story, while others will see themselves in the way these cinephiles saw their undistributed work in many popular films. Sandi Tan’s Shirkers is many things, and it also happens to be the best Netflix documentary since Ava DuVernay’s 13th.

9 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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