Mystery documentary ‘Shirkers’ celebrates creativity

Agroup of teenage girls, a mysterious man and a dream. It sounds like a scenario out of a movie, and it is, but it’s also real life. “Shirkers” (2018) is a documentary that follows the events surrounding a film shoot in the summer of 1992 in Singapore. At just 19 years old, Director Sandi Tan wrote a screenplay and created it with the help of her friends Sophie and Jasmine, as well as Georges Cardona, a visiting American filmmaker. Cardona was, and still is, an enigma to those who produced “Shirkers.” The girls were unsure why he was in Singapore and why he decided to invest so much time in their project, as it was fronted by teenagers with no filmmaking experience whatsoever. After the shoot, the group went their separate ways, but Cardona withheld the footage from the girls for so long they did not find it until after his death. What happened that summer was the creation of Tan’s dream, but Cardona had turned it into a nightmare.

In the documentary, Tan pieces together the events of that fateful summer through anecdotes, letters, tapes, film clips and zines, forming a unique vision of a Singapore in 1992 that few knew. The recovered clips of the original “Shirkers” serve as a time capsule that does not deserve to be lost to the world. It is the city rising up against the forest. It is the kitsch of bakeries and mannequin shops. It is children waiting outside a house in technicolor costumes, watching the world grow around them. The original “Shirkers” was a surreal story about a 16-year-old killer who needs to find people to take with her, either to heaven, hell or somewhere else unknown. The film features a kaleidoscope of unique characters, young, old and canine. Tan, who stars in the film, serves as a walking metaphor for death in her hot-pink sailor shirt with camera in tow. It has a dreamlike quality that was many years before its time. Tan even notes that she sees glimmers of what “Shirkers” should have been in Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore” (1998) and Terry Zwigoff ’s “Ghost World” (2001). All of this was almost lost because of Cardona.

Cardona was so present in Tan’s life for that period of time that his disappearance seemed unfathomable. First, he would only communicate through tapes sent in the mail, and then not at all. He even sent the girls a box of static-filled VHS tapes just to mess with them. Tan did not know for certain whether Cardona still had the film until she found it after his death. Soon, the documentary turns from a remembrance of what “Shirkers” was to a quest to figure out why Cardona hid the footage. The film uncovers the entirety of Cardona’s life through interviews with people whom he hurt. What comes through is the psyche of a man so warped that he decided to invest in the dreams of others just to dash them. Cardona is made out to be death incarnate, and in a way, he deserves that.

“Shirkers” is not just about the persecution of one who destroyed; it is also a celebration of those who create. All of the people featured in the documentary interviews are creatively talented, from musicians to activists to Vassar’s very own Sophia Harvey, who now serves as the chair of the film department. “Shirkers” shows that to be young and full of so many ideas is a fleeting state that deserves to be captured and utilized while it lasts. The drive to create something despite youth and inexperience is what both the original and the current version of “Shirkers” are all about. It is writing innumerable letters in extremely small and messy print with a dried-up pen. It is chewing gum when you’re not allowed to and purposely, obnoxiously doing so. It is making something with your friends not because you should, but because you can. In the beginning, “Shirkers” implies that this spark is only for youth, but it is clear through Tan’s masterful storytelling and style that the spark lives on and cannot be dampened by anyone—not even death himself.

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