It may be easy to bypass Shirkers, the new Netflix original film-documentary, set in 1990s Singapore following a seemingly mundane story of three teenage girls, but to do this would be a mistake. Shirkers (which means literally ‘running away’ or to ‘escape’) is just over 90 minutes long and in that short time presents a fresh take on documentary style filmmaking with its blend of original home video tapes, animation and clips from old vintage indie film creating an emotional and at times gripping piece with very little actual plot.
The setting of the film consists of three teenage girls who created Shirkers, a pioneering indie film of its time, in 1992 in Singapore. After filming had wrapped up the tapes disappeared along with their older American mentor, director and “new best friend” Georges Cardona. The documentary is set over twenty years later, with the narration of Sandi Tan who wrote the script for and starred in Shirkers, interviewing friends and ex-colleagues seemingly trying to piece together the story of a work which was only returned to her (without sound) in 2011 after being found following Georges’ death.
A clever blend of tense soundtrack, along with the use of original home tape footage keep Shirkers gripping as Sandi continues to explore the loss of the tapes and the man who took them from her. The co-creators of her film, Jasmine and Sophie, present an interesting take on the situation still seeming bitter and speak of how cheated they felt, not least because Sophie and Sandi actually channelled a great deal of money into the film production.
The emotional side of this story is one of contrasts, Sandi shows proudly the critics who claim Shirkers was “way ahead of its time” yet then admits how she let herself be controlled by an older chauvinist man who at one point literally told Sophie to “go into the kitchen” despite her contribution to setting up an important meeting.It shows the spiral that Sandi fell into after the loss of the tapes claiming she “no longer (had) a map” and yet the endurance of her and her friends’ connection to a film that had defined such a youthful and free stage in their lives.
Shirkers is not just telling the story of a group of girls who lost a film they made in 1992, to a kind of sociopathic older man. It tells the story of the importance of independent filmmaking, of creativity in communities where it is often stifled. More importantly it feels like a way in which Sandi Tan can come to terms with the loss not just of her film’s sound, but of her “best friend” George, and to watch this feels like a rewarding process.