The Awesome DIY Spirit Of ‘Shirkers’

90s Singapore Film Girls Doin’ It For Themselves

Sandi Tan’s Shirkers, now streaming on Netflix, belongs to one of my favorite genres: the creative project disaster documentary.

Watching Werner Herzog’s Burden of Dreams, Terry Gilliam’s Lost in La Mancha, or Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, one can’t help but internalize the filmmaker’s stress. Shirkers offers a far sunnier viewing experience…at least as far as this viewer is concerned.

As with Gilliam’s ill-fated adaptation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la ManchaTan’s Shirkers–an oddball road movie made with the help of several friends and a middle-aged male mentor, not this documentary with the same name–never saw the light of day.

Which is sad. From all appearances, the original Shirkers had a hot and interesting mess of a production, unsurprising given its inexperienced crew, micro budget, and amateur cast. In addition to writing and directing, Tan cast herself in the lead role.


SHIRKERS ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Written and Directed by: Sandi Tan
Running time: 96 min.


Shirkers also stars Singapore in the summer of ’92, a fading beauty soon to be elbowed offscreen by a gleaming global economy.

And then there’s Georges Cardona, the shady mentor who absconded with the Tan’s unedited footage…

All the proceedings ebulliently and inadvertently portray Tan’s wonderful collaboration with her fellow teen film buffs, Jasmine Kin Kia Ng and Sophia Siddique Harvey. In the days before YouTube, cell phones with high-def cameras, and Instagram followers, these girls got shit done. They had a zine devoted to cinema, and tapped Tan’s cousin in Florida to send them movies banned by the restrictive Singaporean government. My favorite shot of the charismatic Ng shows her jauntily flouting Singapores notorious chewing gum ban as she operates the clapperboard.

Ng and Harvey, now both film professionals, bridled a bit under Tan’s leadership, but both stayed to help midwife her strange, unwieldy baby. The unexpected nightmare of Cardona’s betrayal made their bonding experience even stronger. But rest easy, modern viewers concerned with trigger warnings! Though the 19-year-old Tan went on an extended solo vacation with the married Cardona, there was, she says, no sexual impropriety.

Some of the filmmaker’s memories have grown hazy, but Shirkers plays that for fun. When the grown up Tan offhandedly remarks that she took the lead role as a matter of expedience, her old pal, Ng, calls bullshit on camera: You wanted that part!

True, in much the same way that Harriet wanted to be a spy, or cartoonist Lynda Barry’s Marlys wants to be the Queen of Everything. Tan was quirky, creative, full of herself, and possessed of extraordinary grit.

I loved the vintage footage of the bespectacled Tan marching her scrappy costars through various decaying locations in frumpy shorts and a schoolgirl’s middy. It provides a bracing, refreshing vision of girlish ambition, utterly devoid of duck lips and hashtags.

 This is what believing in yourself looked like before the phrase was commodified.

 In my ideal world, this is what the term “cultural influencer” would signify, then and now.

Ayun Halliday

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.

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