Sandi Tan’s Shirkers is the story of a lost film, a reminder that behind the films we celebrate each year there are plenty more that never found their way to audiences. Those are the films from which new cinematic movements could have sprung, from which young filmmakers eager to shake up the status quo might have drawn inspiration, from which a significant historical record of areas soon to change at the hands of urban development could be gleaned. What was originally meant to be Shirkers had the potential to be all of those things; spurred into motion by an ambitious, DIY-spirited, zine-making teenager and her friends in Singapore during the early nineties.
But film-club mentor George Cardona, who had decided to direct, would inexplicably disappear with the 16mm film reels, leaving Tan and her friends to grapple with what could have been. 23 years later, Tan would be reunited with the reels—albeit without the corresponding sound—inciting her to create what is now Shirkers; a documentary examining the course of events, Tan’s younger self, and investigating Cardona’s motivations. Shirkers is deeply personal to Tan, so much so that it’s still difficult for her to discuss its storied history. But it’s also a celebration of a youthful exuberance towards cinema. It’s the story of someone who found creative ways to watch art-house movies in a country where they weren’t made available and acted upon the desire to make their own.
Speaking shortly after the London premiere of the film, Tan discusses her background in zine-making, the experiences of growing up as a cinephile in late-80s Singapore, and the development of the documentary.
NOTEBOOK: I thought it’d be good to start with talking about your Exploding Cat zine. It’s hard to find much about it on the Internet…
SANDI TAN: Yeah, it’s really hard to find because it was pre-Internet. There’s maybe one reference—some archive has it listed somewhere. This is like ’88, I guess. I was saying to somebody that I wasn’t really thinking about doing a punk zine, I was actually a strange child because I was listening to a lot of jazz. What I was interested in was Benny Goodman and things like that. And then later The Velvet Underground.
What I wanted to do was a Dadaist zine. I wanted to do more of a Dada, 1920s zine kind of thing. But of course, when you’re working with materials from the 80s in a sort of Dadaist way, it winds up looking like a punk zine. And so, The Exploding Cat was that. And the first cover star was Mark E. Smith, surrounded by all these dead fish. It was the one place where I could get all my friends who were in different schools together to work on something that would unite us. It was rare that we could band together and do something. It was so freeing.
NOTEBOOK: Do you feel like the nature of zine-making impacted the editing of the film at all? It often feels like its matching the nature of scrapbooking…
TAN: Yes! Going into making the film, I had to marinate in my teenage mayhem. I was looking at my zines, reading all of my journals, and getting back into that mindset of that completely manic teenager who had a thousand ideas a minute and nowhere to go with them. Remembering that, and how that zine was put together, which was through making scraps and seeing the beauty of them, was important.
Working with Shirkers, we had so little footage of things that mattered, like George and Jasmine, because back in 1992 we didn’t have cell phone cameras and weren’t able to shoot each other all the time, and we weren’t taking pictures of ourselves. There’s actually very little footage of us making the film. What we did have was bits like Jasmine and Sophie manning the slate, things like that, which most people would have thrown away. But those were like the zine things. They became the treasures, and I was like the detective sifting through 700 minutes of footage, looking for these scraps.
And the surreal things, like the backwards swans on the screen, they were all, strangely enough, on the leader tape of the film. So nothing was really made up and found, they were all on the actual 16mm that we had. Using these things to make the documentary was basically done in the spirit of the original film and Exploding Cat.
NOTEBOOK: And you also talk about what you refer to as the "videotaping syndicate" in the film. What were the logistics of that?
TAN: When I was in Singapore in the '80s as a teenager, it was really really hard to see movies. I could get American Film and American Cinematographer and read about these movies, but I couldn’t see them. And sometimes when you did see them you’d be slightly disappointed by what they were, because you imagined a much more interesting movie. And then one of things you could do was go across the border to Malaysia, where there was the one mall that had a lot of places selling illegal bootlegged videotapes of strange movies sometimes. Usually it was Cannibal Holocaust and things like that. But they also had Strangers in Love and the latest American movies shot inside a cinema with some stupid wobbly video camera, you know, with the horrible sound and everything. But they’d sometimes also make mistakes and include art films like Mystery Train. So that’s how I saw some of these movies.
The other way, when you actually wanted to do a curated list of films for yourself—which for me was Blue Velvet and Raising Arizona—you had to be creative about it. I had a cousin in Florida, she’s about the same age as me, and her parents had a Blockbuster card, so I would give her a list of movies to go and rent. But because I was about 14 I didn’t want to seem too suspicious, like always looking for strange films, because my family was really boring you know, and so was hers, and I didn’t want them to think I was being too deviant or something. I would also throw in commercial Rob Lowe movies such as Square Dance—something to just confuse them. So, I’d be like, “Blue Velvet… Angel Heart… some other dark films… then Square Dance and Beetlejuice.”
I gave her money to get a second VHS player and hook them up, and that’s how the syndicate began! Back in those days, you could put 3 movies on a 120-minute VHS tape by recording them at different speeds, which would make them come out really fuzzy. But there was something very analogue and almost religious about seeing these movies in that form.
NOTEBOOK: Shirkers was to be your own art-house road movie. As it was the early '90s, it’d be interesting to hear which you were most influenced by…
TAN: Well, George was obsessed with Walkabout which of course later on, when I saw it, I thought was kind of perverse and creepy, but you had this person in a schoolgirl outfit and a little sidekick. There were a lot of motifs that I could see were taken from there when I watched it later on. He was also obsessed with Robby Müller, and rightly so. So he was interested in the movies he shot with Wim Wenders, the road movies. I’d seen Paris, Texas on a horrible VHS version, but revisiting it recently on Blu-ray, on the Criterion version, I saw so much attention was paid to primarily colors, which I didn’t really notice before. Obviously, George was trying to do some of that with Shirkers as well.
Badlands was one of my favorite movies, and I’d also done the road trip through the U.S. with George, so I just thought it’d be great if we could make mythic the smallest, most boring place in the world—and that was Singapore. It was a very interesting challenge I think. That was why we collected the unusual faces and places that would soon be disappearing—the road movie idea was an excuse for stringing together all these things.
NOTEBOOK: And when you speak to a few critics from Singapore in the film, there’s a unanimous agreement between them that Shirkers could have changed the course of independent filmmaking in Singapore…
TAN: It could have, if it had been made, yeah.
NOTEBOOK: Was there much written about it at the time, during production?
TAN: Well, we were quite aberrant kids and people weren’t used to kids—especially girls—doing something like that. There was one article—because I was an intern on the newspaper at the time, so they were aware that I was doing this thing—about the making of Shirkers by a colleague, where George really funnily said, “oh we’re hoping to have it ready for the Cannes Film Festival,” like some kind of silly thing like that [laughs]. And people were so innocent in those days, in such a small town, that they just printed every nonsensical word. So, there was that one piece. And then Sophie was an intern at a TV station, so they came and interviewed us at one point on set. And then that was it.
So, the only people who really knew about this production were the people involved in it, or those who had their children stolen for the afternoon, or the people at the old folks’ home who we took for the afternoon. People on the periphery knew—like the owner of the largest dog in the country, the woman who played the nurse. But when everything vanished and there was no follow up and no news, it felt as if we were part of the con, that we enabled it. I don’t know… I still feel bad about that. Us kids feeling so embarrassed and ashamed, not following up because we didn’t know how to explain it even to ourselves…
NOTEBOOK: In the documentary you mention feeling a kinship with Stephen Tyler, as someone who also experienced problems at the hands of George. Since showing the film have you heard from other people who’ve experienced similar issues?
TAN: Steve has so many stories. He was so insistent that I talk to more of his friends and people in New Orleans, who all knew George and had many more stories. But I just didn’t want George to hijack the film a second time, so I didn’t want to pursue that, and I didn’t have the money or the time to go and do more interviews. But I said to Steve, maybe later on there will be a part two or you can do it, you know? Because obviously Steve has been obsessed with George over the years, because he was much closer to George than I was. George also stole from him, obviously. So, I don’t know… I think when this airs on Netflix there’ll be interesting stories that might emerge. I’m slightly... not afraid, but I just don’t have the bandwidth to deal with them just yet. But it’ll be interesting for them to see and feel that they weren’t so alone, that this happened to someone else, and that there is verification out in the world that this man existed. He did this thing to me, and I feel stupid, and yet I shouldn’t because all these other people also went along on this slight detour with him, you know?
NOTEBOOK: When you got the film reels back, you had to go through the process of digitizing them. What was that like?
TAN: They sat in my living room for three years before I had the courage to open the boxes and look at them. I knew that once I did it’d absorb my life and I’d vanish down some rabbit hole, and a very expensive one to digitize the film. I had to raise the money and the courage to do that, and the funny thing is that there were 70 cans of film, and every single one was pristinely wrapped in black plastic, because he was insane, he protected all these reels.
When I took it to this lab for transfer, which was one of the places Criterion use, they couldn’t believe it was 23 years old and had travelled the world and had this crazy history—being kidnapped like a living person—because they thought it looked like it had been shot about 5 years ago at most. I was watching it with a complete stranger next to me who had no relationship to the story, yet his jaw was dropping. This was the guy who was working on Douglas Sirk films and knew how amazing film footage looked, and he was old enough to remember the indie films in the 90s and thought that we were doing something quite akin to what people were doing back then in the U.S., but in a different part of the world. I mean, somehow there was this crazy way in which we were all tapping into the same aesthetics, and he thought it was amazing. I was watching it thinking, “Oh my god, we shot in 100 locations, this is such a crazy endeavor.” You only do that when you’re a kid, you know? No grown up would conceivably think it was worth doing. So I just thought we had to do something with it.
NOTEBOOK: What was the budget for the documentary like then, including the digitizing? You had a film and a half to fund, essentially…
TAN: I had to invest some of my own money for digitizing, because without that as proof material no one is going to believe you that it’s any good. You have to make the first move, because you just can’t get a grant to digitize a film that no-one has ever seen. So that was a big hole in my pocket to do. And then once I had that, I cut together a trailer and put some music to it. Music I’d found by this amazing live looper in Singapore that I’d found through the Internet, she’s very DIY, does all the songs in her bedroom, recording them on a machine and she’s got this amazing voice. So it had a real Shirkers kind of spirit that I thought was completely apt. I took that and edited the footage into a 5 minute pseudo-trailer and went to the Sundance Institute and applied for a fund, and they were entranced and gave me some development funding.
With that I could hire Iris Ng, the DP who shot The Stories We Tell, and we went to do the interviews in Singapore, then another set in the States. And once that started coming along, we realized, “Oh, we’re talking to real people who talk about this like it was yesterday,” because it’s still very raw. Then once we had that and I had Enat Sidi [The Wolfpack, Jesus Camp] as my consulting editor, we cut a development reel together. Enat’s really a creative person, and she’s the one who insisted that it’s a film about me, when I just didn’t want to make it about me at all. We cut together this development reel and went back to Sundance in 2016, where I was invited to be a Fellow, where I could meet possible producers and collaborators, and that’s where I found Cinereach which came in with a bit more money, so we could keep moving. And Sundance came in with a bit more. You’ve just got to have something to show before you keep getting money, it’s like a chicken and egg situation, but that’s how documentaries are made.