Nov 1, 2018
Welcome back to Documentary Thursdays! We have another Netflix documentary this week, this time a weird reflection on Singapore in 1992. It quite unique, and while I can’t really think of a film from this year that matches it, I can recommend a few other Netflix documentaries. Check out “Remastered: Who Shot The Sheriff?” (Episode #298), “Feminists: What Were They Thinking?” (Episode #291), “Two Catalonias” (Episode #277), and “Quincy” (Episode #270). Actually, you know what, check out “Stories We Tell” (Episode #238) and “Crime + Punishment” (Episode #249) for a couple other personal documentaries about incredible stories. And if you have any suggestions, let me know at onemoviepunch.com.
Today’s movie is “Shirkers” (2018), the Netflix Original documentary directed by Sandi Tan. The documentary follows Sandi, who made a film with her friends Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique in 1992 Singapore, then had the footage stolen by their mentor and director, Georges Cardona, never to hear from him again. After a few truly incredible turns of events, Sandi follows up with her friends to talk about making the film, and the events which happened afterwards.
I didn’t pay too much attention when this film was first announced, mostly because my particular well of film knowledge knew nothing about “Shirkers”. I won’t try and adopt a hipster attitude of recently researched regurgitation, because I think going into this film knowing nothing about the film only enhances the viewing experience. I went into this film with quite a few questions, after reading the premise in preparation for this review, questions that included whether the film was ever recovered, or whether the images in the trailer were from the original footage or a dramatization for the sake of telling the story, and whether we would ever find out what happened. And while we do indeed get answers to all the questions, they aren’t necessarily the answers we want, and sometimes, are not the answers we expect.
The film begins with a narrative-heavy first act, with Sandi introducing herself and how she came to know each of the individuals that would be involved in creating the original “Shirkers”. I generally don’t like too much narration in documentaries, but Sandi is very judicious with her narration, measuring out as much as you need to know for the story that is being told, and withholding some key pieces that factor into the story much later when she is making this documentary. The second act brings in the other surviving cast and crew members of “Shirkers”, transitioning the focus from Sandi to the making of the film itself, and introducing Georges Cardona as an unspecified danger. The final act starts after George absconds with the footage, and the weird strings of events that take place over the next couple of decades, and transitions the focus flawlessly back to Sandi, as she begins to try and track down what happened to George and if the film still exists.
The story itself is incredible, but the style with which it is told is also incredible. Sandi brings the same cut and paste aesthetic from her work with Jasmine on their early zines to composing this film, mashing bits and pieces of footage together with her narrative prose, and in such a way that sometimes it’s the narrative holding it together, and sometimes it’s the montages and interviews keeping the connections, and then one or two times, you’re just floating along as Sandi floated in a sea of questions looking for answers. It felt more like a moving collage than a documentary, and one that I think is probably infinitely rewatchable. And one, I might add, that leaves me wondering just what kind of cinematic gold would the original “Shirkers” have been, even if it means this documentary, and this story, would never have been told. And before we get to the wrap-up, let me say I’ve done my best to not include any spoilers in this review, even though I think knowing everything will not take away anything from the final product... just your initial viewing.
“Shirkers” (2018) is an incredibly personal and stylish documentary about a film that never was, during a poignant moment in time. Sandi Tan somehow translates that feeling into a well-crafted, well-told story, in a work that I think will be studied by aspiring film-makers and current scholars alike. Fans of great documentaries, or fans of independent film-making, should definitely check out this film, then watch it again and again because it’s that good.
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Metacritic: 88 (MUST SEE)
One Movie Punch: 10.0
“Shirkers” (2018) is rated TV-14 and is currently streaming on Netflix and in select theaters.