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Shirkers: Netflix’s new cinema-centric documentary

Sometimes you have to “go backwards in order to go forwards.” This the central idea behind Sandi Tan’s “Shirkers,” a brilliant new documentary on Netflix that explores friendship, betrayal and the joys and costs of cinephilia.

“Shirkers” is a documentary about another “Shirkers,” a wildly inventive film project that Tan embarked on when she was just 19. Tan grew up in Singapore in the late 80’s and early 90’s, under a government “so uptight  they even banned chewing gum.” Tan found creative rebellion with her friend Jasmine Ng, with whom she shared a love for underground foreign films and music (much of it banned by the government), creating shrines for cult director Jim Jarmusch and leftist playwright Bertolt Brecht, and making a zine called “The Exploding Cat.” They thought of themselves as “The Coen Sisters.”

Their desire to make films finally found an outlet in Georges Cardona, a mysterious self-mythologizer who taught one of Singapore’s first film classes. His magnetic aura quickly drew in Tan, Ng, and Sophie Siddique Harvey, a fellow film student who became one of Tan’s best friends. Their film class often extended late into the night, as Cardona took to driving the girls around Singapore, looking for wild dogs to film, leaving his wife and child at home to soak up the attention of the enraptured and impressionable 18 year olds.

Tan left for school in England, staying in touch with Cardona. She ended up taking a road trip through America with him, alone, and had to fend off several of his advances (an invitation to touch his stomach, for example). Despite her discomfort she was mesmerized by his stories (watching his brother bleed to death on his mother’s lap, being the inspiration for “Sex Lies and Videotape”) and eventually “chose George as [her] new best friend.” Back in England, she maintained contact through letters, and in a frenzy of lonely creativity wrote the screenplay for “Shirkers,” a bizarre and wonderful road movie starring “a sort of Singaporean female Holden Caulfield” (critic Jonathan Romney’s term) who travels around Singapore meeting quirky characters and murdering strangers with a finger gun. She sent to the script to Cardona. “This fucking masterpiece” he wrote back. “I cried.”

I’m realizing that this review is quickly becoming an excessively detailed synopsis so I’ll try to wrap up the rest of the story succinctly. Tan made “Shirkers” the next summer, with the help of Ng and Harvey, and under Cardona’s direction. The film was wildly ambitious, shot in under three months and featuring “Singapore’s biggest dog,” a group of confused senior citizens abducted from a nursing home, and considerable funding obtained by Harvey, who “wrote letters in the voice an experienced executive producer.” After a summer of demanding shooting, which ended with Tan’s savings completely depleted and her friendships growing thin, shooting wrapped. Cardona took the footage and disappeared, never to be seen again. “Shirkers,” which would have been one of Singapore’s first independent films, was dead.

It’s at this point that Tan’s documentary becomes both a detective story and an apology letter. Of particular note is the apology bit. Films typically have acknowledgements, and awards speeches have thank you’s, but rarely do you see apologies and acknowledgements of the significant mental and physical tolls required to bring a movie into existence. In interviews with Ng and Harvey (who both went on to make their own movies or teach about film), we learn that Tan has “always been an asshole,” a quality that became pronounced as she placed increasingly unreasonable demands on her friend’s to get “Shirkers” finished. This characterization is expressed affectionately by Ng, but there is a deep and real sense of hurt. Tan and the viewer come to think about the costs of putting a film’s creation above all else, friendship be damned. Rather than valorizing the tyrannical methods of a director like Hitchcock, we come to think about who gets hurt when ambition veers into monstrosity.

Which is not to say that Tan is the monster of “Shirkers,” far from it. The real monster is of course Cardona, whose story Tan pieces together in interviews with those who fell under his spell. We learn that “Shirkers” was not the first film project that Cardona helped to create and then destroy, and that Tan was not the first person he lied to about his backstory. Like Donald Draper in “Mad Men,” Cardona forged his past, hiding his humble origins in a village in Columbia, and giving himself a German father and French mother.

“There was always a sense,” noted one of Cardona’s students, “that he was not just self-conscious about perceptions of his class, but also his ethnicity.” In her final evaluation of Cardona, Tan notes that “after unpeeling George Cardona, layer by layer, I realize there is nothing there, but movies. There are characters he wanted to emulate, and there were characters he pretended to be. But the one who was closest to who he really was Nosferatu, trying to become immortal by feeding on young people’s dreams.”

The sheer wildness of “Shirkers” making and disappearance alone is enough to carry Tan’s documentary. But it’s in it’s hypnotic soundtrack and innovative editing that “Shirkers” really shines, setting it apart from your average talking heads non-fiction film. Tan eventually recovered “Shirkers” lost footage, thanks to Cardona’s widow (who wanted to remain anonymous), and Tan expertly weaves its surprisingly gorgeous footage throughout the documentary. The film opens with a reversed car ride, moving us backwards in time, and closes with the same car at a car wash, Tan’s haunting history finally being purged and cleansed through her cinematic reengagement with her past. There is a deep sense of melancholy about what might have been, had “Shirkers” seen the light of day, yet Tan’s profound documentary is a more than worthy substitute.

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