Biweekly Binge: Shirkers- For the love of cinema
A fortnightly column on what’s good – old and new - in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you
There is a whole genre called found footage cinema, but what if prized footage was thought to be lost forever? Sandi Tan's Netflix documentary Shirkers is about one such piece of footage. She and her friends, Jasmine Ng and Sophia Siddique, made an avant-garde film in Singapore in the early 90s and then the cans of film disappeared. They had called the film Shirkers. Tan and her friends were young, rebels in their own way with self-published magazines, film writings, underground clubs and strong likes, dislikes and opinions on cinema. At one point, Ng says something about Tan liking Bergman, and the latter is quick to correct - "I hate Bergman!". They talk about cult indie films of Singapore like They Call Her Cleopatra Wong and their love for pop culture. When Tan says she and Jasmine devoured pop culture that people around them ignored, Tamil Nadu's own MGR makes an appearance. Part of the generation that lived through phases like the chewing gum ban in Singapore, they grew up in an age of censorship that gave way to more compelling, rebellious art in the young minds of Tan, Ng, and Siddique.
At the film's pivot sits Georges Cardona, Tan and Ng's film school teacher who nurtured their love for cinema. An enigmatic figure, Cardona introduced Tan to French New Wave, to Breathless and Godard. Every cinema lover has a father figure introducing an impressionable mind to the joys of cinema and its myriad characters. For Tan and her friends, it was Cardona, the Singaporeans awed by the white man sharing crazy, weird, intriguing stories and anecdotes about himself and about films (he once claimed Jayne Mansfield's decapitated head rolled over to the side of his car!). They may be apocryphal but Cardona at first comes across as that arresting raconteur who can overawe anyone with the gift of the gab. Some of the joyous moments in Shirkers are in the portions where Tan discovers cinema and falls in love with it - Blue Velvet, The Seventh Seal, Rushmore, Ghost World, Blow Up. A familiar, identifiable phase for any cinephile. Early in the film, Tan says that one of Cardona's favourite films and influences is Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, about the rubber baron played by Klaus Kinski, who exploits the indigenous people of Peru in transporting a steamship over a hill. The parallels in Shirkers begin to grate at you soon enough.
In the beginning of the film, Sandi Tan talks about how to go forward she had to move backwards. As the cans of Shirkers make their way to her, she starts to pull back the pages in search of the memories of George Cardona and the people associated with him. Shirkers, directed by Tan, goes through a dramatic shift in tone in the latter half. The documentary begins to feel like horror, with the ghost of Cardona as its guiding spirit, haunting the footage wherever it goes. Tan uses clay figurines made to look like stop-motion animation to bring to life some of Cardona's gaudy stories. After all, what Cardona did with Tan and her friends was textbook ghosting. Tan meets Cardona's widow who seems as stumped as she is, and talks to a cinematographer who worked in Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies and Videotape. One of Cardona's apocryphal stories was about how he was the inspiration behind James Spader's character in Soderbergh's Palme d'Or-winning film. Cardona is an inscrutable figure who like all incomplete filmmakers is a voyeur at first. An ex-friend of Cardona describes his complications perfectly - "He was good with women, he could get what he wanted from them and what he wanted wasn't always sex." Tan, along with them, tries to piece together the unending jigsaw puzzle in her life called Georges Cardona.
Shirkers ultimately becomes a tale of emotional abuse and intellectual theft, robbing Tan and her friends of a shared memory as dear to them as life itself. They come undone by several things at once - the politics and censorship in Singapore, and the white man pretending to be their teacher and saviour. But it is also about cinema and the love for the medium. Tan's first few words in the documentary are, "You found freedom by building worlds inside your heads." If that isn't an accurate definition of cinema, I am not sure what is. Shirkers celebrates cinema and places it as something that is as ephemeral as it is timeless. In the end someone mentions how the film Shirkers never had a life, but through this experience of Tan (not to mention this Netflix documentary itself), it has attained an afterlife. Cinema is personal. Not everyone reacts the same way to a particular film and one's experience of it is influenced by a host of variables. And Shirkers, a script written on a whim and filmed on a whim, is as personal as they come. Sandi Tan's documentary is an ode to passions and passion projects around the world.