Sandi Tan wanted to make a movie. She was 19 and living in Singapore, the sort of misfit teen who worshipped at the altar of late Eighties/early Nineties underground culture. She obsessed over Jarmusch and The Catcher in the Rye, with a side helping of American blues and the French New Wave; while most kids had been at school studying for midterm exams, she was already writing for the local alt-weekly The Big O and starting a fanzine called The Exploding Cat with her “nemesis”-turned-best-friend Jasmine Ng. But the goal was to get a camera, recruit her friends and fellow cinephiles, and join the ranks of Film Comment cover stars. If they happened to kickstart the country’s nascent indie scene, so be it. Tan had this idea about a young, female wandering around Singapore, saving children and killing adults — Holden Caulfield as a serial killer. She wanted to call it Shirkers. Jasmine would help out; so would their friend Sophie. And then she met Georges.
By this point in Tan’s documentary — which takes its name from their prospective road movie, for reasons that will eventually become evident — we already know that the collective’s attempt to leave a mark on the seventh art will turn into a “secret history that would haunt us and bond us forever.” It only sounds melodramatic until you hear the full story. Embarking on this rocky, pitfall-dotted trip down memory lane, she details how this fortysomething man enters their teen-spirit ecosphere, encouraging the young Sandi to follow her dream and exposing her to other celluloid-hero influences. A road trip together through America with Georges further broadens her horizons, though this married father of one starts giving off what she calls “strange signals.” (Cue everyone’s “uh-oh” button going into hyperdrive.)
None of her other friends like this mystery gent with a weird affinity for much younger women, but they bring him into the filmmaking fold nonetheless. He signs on to be the director; Tan has written the screenplay and is going to play the lead. Amateur actors and neighbors are cast. Production starts in the summer of 1992. And then, after many months of shooting, and people faking seizures in public, and psychological mind games, and frayed friendships, Georges disappears. Worse, he’s taken all of the Shirkers footage with him. Gone. Kaput. Everyone’s enraged. No one hears anything from him for ages until a box of videotapes show up in a box — and in the ultimate dick move, they’re all filled with nothing but static and snow.
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Tan first finds solace in the last refuge of movie-mad scoundrels and ne’er-do-wells, i.e. film criticism. She eventually moves to Los Angeles, starts writing fiction, gets married, moves on with her life. The thought that what could have been a minor, bursting-with-youthful-vigor masterpiece has vanished into thin air still gnaws at her. Then, in 2011, the phone rings ….
Part experimental-cinema excavation of the past, part case study in pathology and part detective story, Shirkers is Tan’s personal recounting of a betrayal, 24 frames per second. The fact that we see a lot of footage of this aborted indie gem hints that all was not exactly lost, but it’s the way those dots get connected — and how the trauma suffered by a young woman at the hands of an older man is slowly being exorcised bit by bit — that makes this such a compelling look back in anger. Present-day interviews catch us up on what the other players have been up to (becoming a major activist and filmmaker, chairing the Film Department at Vassar … no big whoop) and reopen old wounds in the name of finally healing them.
The late-act switch of focus from Sandi to Georges and his self-mythologizing backstory does slow the movie’s momentum a bit, and though the clips we see are colorful and creatively offbeat — think Wong Kar-wai meets Wes Anderson at an Etsy convention — there’s no sense of whether the original Shirkers would have been a good work of art or a great teenage-kicks folly. But that’s ultimately not the point. What Tan has given us is an incredible, sui generis tribute to the international lingua franca of D.I.Y. cinempowerment. She’s also telling us the story of how one person stole a big part of her youth. This documentary is her stealing it back. Victory, finally, is hers.