When you hear the word documentary, the instinct is to believe the events as they unfold. Stories can be interpreted or shaped, but the footage does not lie. You see the events in a mostly unbiased or logical fashion, allowing the audience to trust their instincts. However, sometimes you encounter a work that is so odd and curious, you doubt your sanity while watching. Everything about “Shirkers,” a documentary from director Sandi Tan and distributed by Netflix, feels impossible and surreal. This is the very point of the escapist story, and that peculiarity makes it one of the most impressive outings of 2018.
“Shirkers” follows the story of Sandi Tan as the director looks back at her first attempt at filmmaking. At eighteen years old, she sat down and wrote a feature named “Shirkers,” a road trip movie across Singapore. It had the lofty goal of playing at Cannes and would represent an independent film milestone in Singapore. Tan enlists her friends Sophia Siddique and Jasmine Ng. She becomes driven by the magnetism of the older and charismatic Georges Cardona, and begins production. However, Cardona disappears without a trace. Tan and her friends can never complete “Shirkers.” While films like “Rushmore” and “Ghost World” release, hers simply vanished. The question of “what if?” lingers. Twenty years later, she is contacted about rolls of footage and dives back into the work that eluded her for decades.
The story here would be enough to hook any viewer. Yet Tan’s direction brings out a weird and precious feeling that instantly elevates the importance of the images. Her visual flair mirrors the avant-garde nature of the narrative. The absurdism of Herzog and Soderberg fill each frame, and Tan edits a brisk pace. We are constantly in motion as the audience, almost simulating an amusement park ride as we move from moment to moment. Tan builds on her established skill as an underground zine editor, and crafts a counterculture and punk rock aesthetic to the story. No documentary since “Exit Through the Gift Shop” has felt so authentic, yet simultaneously shows its contempt for its mere existence.
One of the ways Tan accomplishes this feat comes from the auditory experience. Her use of sound and score snap the viewer into a distant, yet familiar world. The soundscape feels haunted, yet at the same time brings out something special in the original work. This becomes more apparent as the score evolves between the acts. The music from composer Ishai Adar slowly adds a haunting feeling to the images on the screen. When the first bit of music appears, it fits the tone of the movie within a movie. Yet there’s an underlying feeling of trauma that aptly fits the events of Tan’s journey. This revelation makes the score one of the more memorable aspects of “Shirkers.”
The way Tan assembles the footage is absolutely transfixing. Tan and editors Lucas Cellar and Kimberly Hassett stitch together a portrait of a sociopath unlike any you’ve ever seen. There’s a kinetic feeling to each piece of the footage and Tan treats the audience as if they’ve got ADHD. The images jump around from short snippets of “Shirkers,” to other features, over to an interview, and then to the simple second unit shots. The displacement she puts on the audience mirrors her own displacement in the story. Yet the overall absurdity and weirdness will put its hook into the audience.
Tan’s technical achievement displays a masterful control of this story. There was a way to make “Shirkers” as a regular, run-of-the-mill documentary and still feel essential. She could have faithfully put the events in order and told the story as it was. After all, the messages and heart of “Shirkers” runs deep. At its most illuminating moments, “Shirkers” feels like a gift by merely existing. Tan and her friends are forever changed by the experience, but not necessarily in a bad way. Instead, they grew a love of film and each other that feels palpable through each step.
At the same time, “Shirkers” tells the story of a charismatic man and how sociopaths and con men may get close to us without warning. Tan and her friends are undeniably harmed by the actions of a remorseless, sadistic man. The venus fly trap posing as a man exploits their greatest hopes and dreams. Yet knowing they overcame him, growing up to become passionate and caring individuals, makes the trials and tribulations mean something. While the air of “what if” never fades, you realize that these individuals were so talented, they would always make it. Instead of remorse for something that could not be, the footage works as a time capsule for three young women beginning a fantastic journey.
The road map for “Shirkers” is messy and strange. Few films in history can say they’ve had as tumultuous a journey as this. Yet with twenty-five years of wondering what happened, twenty-five years of frustration, and twenty-five years of anger, Tan delivers something beautiful and endearing. “Shirkers” is one of the most essential works of 2018 and the most vivid portrait of a film lost to time.