It’s quite likely that you’ve never watched anything quite like “Shirkers,” the Sandi Tan-directed documentary that recently made its way to Netflix.
The film, which won Sundance’s 2018 World Cinema Documentary Directing Award, tells the story of Sandi, Sophie and Jasmine who create an indie film called “Shirkers” in early 90s Singapore — a feat that was unprecedented at the time for any filmmakers, much less for a group of untrained teenagers with little to no connections.
Sandi wrote the script for “Shirkers” energized by her film teacher, a Colombian-born film obsessive named Georges Cardona. Cardona directs the film, assuming the role of an experienced leader. However, as time passes, the girls grow weary of Cardona’s dishonest and cruel antics. Eventually, Cardona pulls his cruelest antic of all: he keeps all the footage of “Shirkers” for decades, breaking Sandi’s spirit and dashing the team’s hopes of breaking through as filmmakers.
In a period wherein Asian representation in film is being discussed with more seriousness, in coalescence with the success of films like “Crazy Rich Asians” and TV shows like “Kim’s Convenience,” “Shirkers” stands out as something unique, just as the original film was meant to do in the early 90s.
It presents worldwide audiences with an insightful peek into Singaporean life and culture, if only for moments. We learn about the country’s conservatism and its growing economy through the lens of its rebellious youth.
It speaks to the spirit of a global Asian youth fixated on creating, fighting against the conservative constructs that surround and often suppress their voices. It speaks to the history, the ancestry that Asian youths can look to when forming their own artistic and rebellious movements. It also speaks to a dark reality, that of older men acting out on their own fragility by captivating impressionable young women and manipulating their spirits. It speaks to the dangers of putting excessive artistic power in the hands of others while showing glimmers of hope in the possibilities that unlocked for the three young filmmakers through their passion for art.
It is a piece of storytelling both highly personal and universal; both necessary to the current climate and timelessly apolitical; both darkly mature and appealing to young audiences. It features important feminist themes, yet would be undermined by my attempt to relate or analyze with them as a man. (I encourage female readers to watch the film and make that analysis for themselves.)
Rather, I was struck by how I connected with Sandi and her friends, Sophie and Jasmine, almost as if they were tied to me ancestrally. As young people in Singapore, a country astoundingly conservative, they find solace in being weird, creating punk zines and obsessing over banned films. They instantly felt like heroes to me, even if, to a certain extent, they were tragic ones.
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