Sandi Tan’s Netflix documentary Shirkers (2018) is a documentary that explores the specific moment in many people’s lives when the creative fires of youth are extinguished by random circumstances. While the events that the film depicts are odd and improbable, Shirkers resonates far beyond either its specific locale or its specific moment in time.
Sandi, Sophie, and Jasmine were teens growing up in 80’s Singapore. The trio’s obsessions with new wave and punk music, arthouse movies, and zines was at odds with the conservative culture of Singapore. At the behest of their film instructor George—an older married man—, Sandi and her friends embarked on a multi-year journey to create one of the earliest Singaporean indie films: Shirkers. Their indie movie dreams abruptly came to an end when all of the film’s materials disappeared after shooting ended.
Shirkers is Sandi Tan’s attempt to solve the mystery of what happened to her movie as well as close a long unresolved chapter in her life.The key figure in this mystery is George; Sandi goes to great lengths to figure who he really was.Sandi retraces the steps of her precocious teen years, and interviews many of the participants in the original film, including her friends Sophie and Jasmine. We learn that, many decades later, that the making of the movie is still a source of tension between the trio.
The Shirkers documentary boasts an aesthetic that integrates numerous styles and media, including collages made from old postcards, photos, and letters, as well as puppetry and low-res video. The unique approach reveals that Sandi Tan, whose had a successful careers as a film critic and novelist, is a uniquely talented filmmaker who was never able to fully express her cinematic skills until now.