Shirkers (2018) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): In search of a stolen movie

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Netflix documentary film “Shirkers”, which won World Cinema Documentary Director Award at the Sundance Film Festival early in this year, is a vivid, compelling collection of personal memories surrounding one small stolen film. As following a dramatic quest revolving around that unfortunate film, this remarkable documentary delves deep into what has been unjustly suppressed and forgotten for many years, and the overall result is quite powerful at times.

After initially showing a brief except from that stolen film which was her first movie, director Sandi Tan describes her early years to us via a series of old photographs and video footage clips. Born in Singapore, 1972, she spent most of her childhood years with her grandparents due to her parents’ early divorce, and she reminisces a bit about how her grandparent’s house looked. It is gone now with a big condominium building occupying its place instead, but she still remembers how the front lawn of her grandparents’ house was used to be flooded by rain, and we get a little amusing moment showing that site being flooded by rain as before.

Even when she was very young, Tan showed her rather wild, rebellious streak, and that aspect of hers only grew further as she entered her adolescent years. Constantly feeling pressured and suffocated by lots of expectation from adults around her, she reached for freedom through throwing herself to movie and rock music, and we hear about how she managed to watch “Blue Velvet” (1986) and many other films banned in Singapore.

Although movie business was almost non-existent in Singapore during the early 1990s, Tan and her two friends Jasmine Ng and Sophia Siddique were eager to make movies as attending a small filmmaking class taught by an American guy named Georges Cardona. While there was something weird about him, Cardona made a good impression on Tan and his other students, and Tan did not mind at all when he later suggested that they take a road trip across US together, even though everyone knew that he was a married man.

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During that road trip, Tan came to decide to write a screenplay with Cardona’s seemingly sincere encouragement, and she immediately embarked on her personal project once she came back from US. Her screenplay, titled, yes, “Shirkers”, is about one teenage killer girl’s wild journey, and, like any enthusiastic first-time screenplay writers, she tried to put everything into it. Although she did not have much knowledge and experience, she was quite determined to make something special, and she soon came to have Ng and Siddique join the project.

Of course, Tan and her friends came to face a series of obstacles from the beginning. Because they had to go back to their respective colleges outside Singapore after a few months later, they did not have much time, so they hurriedly went through their pre-production process. When they held an audition for finding performers for their movie, many of cast members were their friends or family members, and Tan eventually came to cast herself as the heroine of their movie although she was not sure about whether she could do the job well.

Anyway, the shooting began under Cardona’s direction once everything was ready in the end, and Tan and her two friends went through a pretty exciting time together. While there was some conflict among them around the end of the shooting, they stuck together for completing their movie anyway, and they managed to finish the shooting before they went back to their respective colleges.

While they were absent, Cardona was supposed to do the editing of their film, but he did not tell them much about what was going on, and then he simply disappeared along with everything they shot. Tan and her friends were quite perplexed and devastated as a consequence, and they felt more hurt when a certain package was sent to Tan in 1997.

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During next 14 years, Tan and her two friends went on each own way as leaving behind their stolen film, but then there came an unexpected twist on September 11th, 2011. Cardona’s ex-wife contacted Tan shortly after his death, and she sent Tan a bunch of film cans containing the raw footage of “Shirkers”, which had been preserved mostly intact except the sound part which was somehow lost.

During the second half of the documentary, Tan tries to find more about Cardona, and what she comes to discover is not that pretty at all. Besides lying about his personal background, Cardona often manipulated and exploited others around him, and a guy who once attended Cardona’s filmmaking class tells us at one point that Cardona deliberately sabotaged his project just because he seemed to advance further than Cardona.

As watching a number of raw footage clips from “Shirkers”, we cannot help but wonder about what it could have been if it had not been snatched away from Tan and her two friends, but Tan and the documentary do not merely dwell on the past. While candidly and thoughtfully reflecting on what was lost forever, she comes to find closure and relief through what was fortunately left to her, and so do her two friends, who are still as passionate about movies as her despite their broken dream in the past. Their movie is gone forever, but, at least, they regain what was wrongfully taken away from them, and the documentary did a commendable job of presenting that with care and affection. In my inconsequential opinion, this is one of the best documentary films of this year, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to you.

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