AS A TEENAGER, ASPIRING FILMMAKER SANDI TAN (LEFT) HAD A DREAM STOLEN FROM HER. TWO DECADES LATER, THIS LOSS WAS TURNED INTO A DOCUMENTARY – WHICH EARNED HER A SUNDANCE AWARD. BY CLARA HOW
"IT'S a story that screams to be told – I would be a loser if I kept this ﬁlm in the basement and didn’t do anything about it,” Sandi Tan says over the phone from Los Angeles, where she’s based. “It would mean something to me, Singapore and the rest of the world to share this story, and to tell people not to be afraid if something bad happens to you or your work.” And Sandi, 46, has good reason not to be afraid.
She’s coming off the back of a successful run of her internationally acclaimed documentary, Shirkers. Not only did it nab the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival, making her the second Singapore ﬁlmmaker to gain recognition at the festival (the ﬁrst was Her World Young Woman Achiever 2017 ﬁlmmaker Kirsten Tan), Shirkers was also acquired by Netﬂix for global distribution on Oct 26.
It’s a Singapore story you couldn’t make up: Girl grows up in a city that’s as small as her dreams are big. Girl meets a strange American (or is he?) man in Singapore who becomes her mentor in all things ﬁlmmaking. Girl, only 19, writes a screenplay called Shirkers. He tells her it’s brilliant, encourages her to make the ﬁlm, and acts as the director. With the help of fellow ﬁlm enthusiasts, she and her best friends spend their entire 1992 university summer break acting, shooting, producing what would have been Singapore’s ﬁrst indie ﬁlm (three years ahead of Eric Khoo’s Mee Pok Man). The young adults return to university abroad, buoyed by their achievement, with reassurances from the mysterious American that he would, in their absence, get going with the footage. He disappears with their ﬁlm, and they never see him again.
The girl is Sandi, and 25 years after the incident, it was time to tell this strangerthan-ﬁction tale on her own terms. Shirkers is a documentary about a non-ﬁlm, a haunting, idiosyncratic retelling of her experience with Georges Cardona, a man who claimed he was the inspiration for the protagonist of Sex, Lies and Videotape, and who eventually made off with their footage.
The documentary, interspersed with the now-recovered footage (no spoilers here – you have to watch to ﬁnd out how), follows Sandi as she revisits her teenage years, speaks to her original crew and friends of Cardona, and realises, with retrospection, that there was more to the missing ﬁlm than her teenage self understood. Yes, it is every bit as meta as we’ve described it.
The original Shirkers was offbeat, hipster before it was hip, and ahead of its time. “It was a strange Valentine to Singapore back then,” muses Sandi. “I didn’t want to show skyscrapers, palm trees, or a single textbook. I wanted to show a distinct, unique collection of faces and places that I loved, like back alleys, farms, my favourite buildings.” The result was a road movie featuring an 18-year-old, S, who roams around Singapore killing people and having misadventures.
For Singaporeans, watching the documentary, which includes the original ﬁlm footage of our city in the ’90s, is incredibly nostalgic. But beyond that is a universal, emotional message – of reexamining a childhood with new eyes, of reliving dreams, and the excitement of creating new things. The documentary may brim with sentiment, and the voiceover is wistful. But Sandi, as I can tell from the LA phone call, is matterof-fact and sanguine. The same fearless girl who bulldozed her way to getting her maiden ﬁlm made is now in the early stages of talks to create more ﬁlms.
Most 19-year-olds would baulk at the idea of creating an entire feature ﬁlm from scratch – especially in the pre-Internet era. But for Sandi, who grew up in a family of ﬁlm buffs and whose stepmother was famous actress Marrie Lee of They Call Her Cleopatra Wong fame, it was the ultimate goal. “Film captivated me because it was a way one viewed the world,” she explains. “I couldn’t watch all the movies I wanted in Singapore, so I used to read movie guides, memorise synopses, and imagine what the movies were like.”
Beguiled by the power of storytelling, and noticing that “there were no ﬁlms made about my world”, she decided to act on it.
As a university student studying in Britain, she drew inspiration from an American road trip to write Shirkers. Her best friends Jasmine Ng (now a ﬁlmmaker) and Sophia Siddique Harvey (now the head of ﬁlm at Vassar College, New York) would be instrumental in producing the ﬁlm.
It was a wildly ambitious project helmed by teenagers, but the team powered through with youthful single-mindedness. “No one had done something like this before. There was no one to tell us no,” says Sandi. Case in point: When they wanted to draw crowds for a scene, one of the crew members faked a seizure. In contrast, Cardona was on the sidelines, relying on the girls to do the grunt work.
When it became clear that Cardona had stolen their ﬁlm, Sandi was devastated, but not defeated. “I don’t see it as a cautionary tale. I’m a pessimist, so I assume everyone is devious,” she quips. “His actions were so uniquely malevolent that you don’t think it would happen again.”
Leaving the ﬁlm industry was never an option – she went on to become a ﬁlm critic with The Straits Times before moving to the US. Her short ﬁlms, Moveable Feast (1996) and Gourmet Baby (2001) would become ﬁlm-festival favourites, and her 2012 novel, The Black Isle, was a best-selling title.
In the eight months she took to edit the documentary, Sandi says she was able to look back on what happened with wiser, more experienced eyes. “Back then, we were embarrassed that we’d let ourselves be conned, so we didn’t talk about it or deal with it,” she explains. “But then when you look back and see it as a grown-up, you think, wow, we did that? You realise that we did something amazing. I’m proud of what my friends and I tried to do.”
Shirkers has been making its run in the ﬁlm circuit, and Sandi has had the privilege of people coming up to her after movie screenings to thank her for sharing the story. “The ﬁlm speaks to a lot of people personally – they feel like it is their story,” she explains. Thanks to Netﬂix, Shirkers’ reach has extended to include an entirely different audience.
“It’s also a very personal, earbuds movie,” she explains. “I look forward to kids living in unlikely places in Vietnam or Croatia who want to do things, who can now watch it and have me talking in their ear and telling them not to be afraid. And to go forth, and pursue things.”
The cast of the original Shirkers was a motley bunch of strangers, family and friends.
The resourceful teens did it all, including getting hold of an enormous dog for filming.
An older, wiser Sandi travelled around America to discover who Cardona really was.