Her hyper stylish and personal 2018 documentary Shirkers made her an overnight indie idol with its irreverence and mesmerising, colour-soaked cinematography that fused multiple film formats with digital and punk DIY graphics. From it, we learnt about what life was like growing up in ’90s Singapore, the nation’s movie industry at the time, and that she co-founded a zine that went the then equivalent of viral. So who better than Sandi Tan (above) to expound on the charm of analogue mediums, how to make them gel with Gen Z and modern technology, and that ultimately, it’s the story that counts? Here, excerpts from her Q&A (done via e-mail!) with Keng Yang Shuen.
Tan’s ’90s zine The Exploding Cat was made with lo-fi materials – headlines and images clipped from The Straits Times, poems printed on dot matrix printers – and frequent trips to the photocopy machine. Pictured here: pages from its first issue.
ON THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SHOOTING ON FILM AND DIGITAL
“Digital is immediate. Film – especially the 16mm Kodak stock we used (in Shirkers) – has a grain and richness in colour that no digital camera has been able to replicate completely as yet. Of course, shooting on digital is easier (even looking for somebody who knows what to do with 16mm film is an ordeal in today’s Los Angeles, the film centre of the world), but film has a special quality that everybody who loves pre-1990s cinema has a special fondness for. Film is also much more expensive to work with and every second you shoot is precious, whereas with digital, every mistake can be erased within a second and the software can be reused. Film is indelible. That is its allure, as well as its difficulty. You’re talking about the difference between silk and rayon. There are times you want to wear silk; other times, it’s handier to wear rayon.”
ON THE ART OF REVIVING A FILM TWO DECADES LATER – AND STILL MAKE IT FEEL CURRENT
“The short truthful answer is filmmaking. I wanted to tell this complex story melding time, memory and different continents in the most compelling way possible, and the route I found best suited to its telling was to capture the emotional and creative reality of what it was like to be (teenage) me at the genesis of the entire Shirkers enterprise back in the early 1990s in Singapore. It’s a very specific milieu in the mind of a very specific individual (ie me). And because I was no longer that person, this initially took a lot of diving back into my own archive and reclaiming my own buoyant, irreverent teenage personality through osmosis: I marinated myself in my own teenage mania to recapture the texture of what it might have been like to be me. This was the work of months, and of auditioning and finding like-minded collaborators such as my co-editor Lucas Celler (a punk skateboarder by inclination). I listened to a lot of music and looked at images for ages before I began discovering new rhythms in telling this very new story… There was nothing orthodox in the way we worked. We developed our own rules because to tell this story, we couldn’t go by any ordinary rule book, and it was a story only I could tell, so I had to be alert to connections that only I could see.”
ON WHAT CREATING HER ZINE THE EXPLODING CAT MEANT FOR HER TEENAGE SELF
“I made a lot of collages in those days, often using headlines and photos from The Straits Times and The New Paper. It was the way I kept sane: finding levity in the absurd tedium of teenage life, totalitarian reportage and scholastic pressures in the Singapore of the late ’80s. The Exploding Cat was really the love affair between me and the photocopier, although the first issue included a contribution from (classmate and Shirkers associate producer) Jasmine (Ng)’s then 12-year-old sister Lynette – a two-page illustrated guide to knitting a sweater for your pet fish – and several long, violent, Ballard-influenced poems printed out on a dot-matrix printer by our friend Julian Lim, who was a child genius at Raffles Institute.”
ON FINDING A SOCIAL, GLOBAL-SPANNING COMMUNITY IN THE ’90S
“Around the time of my O levels, I sent a long note along with a copy of the first issue of The Exploding Cat to a zine listings periodical called Factsheet Five, which was published in upstate New York. This was before the Internet. You needed this directory to learn about all the other zinemakers out in the world. The editor of Factsheet Five, Mike Gunderloy, was entranced by the zine and wrote about it, and soon I had requests for it from around the world – people from Israel to Tokyo, to Situationists in France. And, yes, requests from prisoners (as highlighted in Shirkers). It was my version of the Internet: hundreds of new pen pals… I found my own social network and this was my first taste of what it meant to go international… In the second issue, I included poems and collages made by other zine-makers around the world, and gave them free rein to reproduce mine. It was a freewheeling cultural exchange in those days made via ink, paper and scissors.”
ON MAKING SHIRKERS IF SHE WERE A 19-YEAR-OLD (HER AGE IN THE FILM) TODAY
“Of course I’d be able to do it! It’s easier than ever to make a film – 12-year-olds have been doing it on their phones. However, if I were the same person I was when I was 19, I’d still be trying to mount some gargantuan, impossible feat, if not on 16mm film, then shooting on a phone with lenses and apps, (and) I’d probably up the ante in other ways: elaborate set pieces and even more far-flung locations. My impetus back then wasn’t just to make any old film. I was always (and still am) driven to accomplish something difficult, and that would showcase a range of my friends’ talents.”