Every good horror story needs a monster, a specter out of nightmares.
In the movie Shirkers the monster is a thief of dreams, robbing the young of their innocence—a scenario all the more disturbing because this horror story is real.
Sandi Tan is both director and protagonist of the Netflix documentary, which retraces her experience as a precocious teenager in Singapore in the early 1990s. At age 18, Tan embarked on making an ambitious feature film starring herself as a young assassin, a remarkably bold undertaking especially in a conservative place with no cinematic tradition. She enlisted two close friends, Jasmine Ng and Sophia Siddique, to help her on the slasher film, which she titled Shirkers.
“We shot it—on 16mm film donated by Kodak,” Tan has written. “100 locations, 100 actors, including the largest dog in the country.”
The person behind the camera was not a fellow teenager but an adult, a mysterious cinephile named Georges Cardona who had bonded with Sandi despite their considerable age difference.
“He became my best friend,” Tan explains. “To me, he was a teenage girl really, but in the body of a grown man.”
There were strange incidents during filming, as when Georges spent a whole day “shooting” with no film in his camera. But it wasn’t until production wrapped that the story took a much darker turn.
“What happened was we shot this film in Singapore over two and a half months,” Tan tells Deadline, “and then Georges vanished with all the footage.”
All their work, all their hopes, gone.
“This is a man who never actually created anything and finished anything in his life,” Tan states, with the benefit of hindsight. “What he does is he takes away. He steals, he steals part of your soul. He was a vampire of cinema.”
The loss traumatized the young Tan and damaged her friendships with Ng and Siddique. She eventually made a life for herself in Los Angeles as a novelist, putting Shirkers and the past behind her. Until one day when, out of the blue, the stolen film footage showed up at her door.
“These boxes reappear in my life… film cans, storyboards, everything related to the film,” Tan related at the AFI Fest’s documentary roundtable earlier this week. “It took me three years to break open those boxes even though I had been searching for these things all my life, basically, as an adult…I had to reconsider reopening this wound.”
Making Shirkers—the documentary—involved not only reopening the wound for her, but convincing her old friends Jasmine and Sophia to do likewise.
“It took months of vacillating for them. There was a lot of anger,” Tan remembers. “It’s like the boogeyman in It, you know what I mean? The fact that when you were a kid a bad thing happened and it bonded you forever, for better or worse. Then it resurfaces when you’re grownups when you’re completely at a different stage in your life. What do you do with that? That in itself is hugely dramatic and complex and I had to capture that dynamic in the film too.”
She also set about solving the mystery of Georges Cardona, the figure who appears in the documentary only in phantom glimpses and snippets of creepy audio. Complicating matters considerably, Cardona has disappeared for good, into the grave.
Says Tan, “I’m telling a ghost story here.”
Tan won the directing award for World Cinema Documentary at Sundance last January and her film has recently earned nominations for the Cinema Eye Honors and the Gotham Independent Film Awards, along with a spot on the DOC NYC shortlist. Shirkers has qualified for Oscar consideration and its critical reception makes the film a solid contender for the Academy’s shortlist of top 15 documentaries, to be announced next month.
Curiously, given the painful history revealed in the film, Shirkers has proven inspirational to many who see it, perhaps because in the end Tan managed to give her original film a life it was deprived of for so long, in the process telling a story of triumph over dark circumstances.
“I just keep meeting a core of young people…I’ve managed to touch, that I didn’t think I would,” Tan shares. “They keep saying the film is very inspiring. It’s me exhorting them to be brave and to pursue their dreams and to take them along on this journey with me, which I guess is very cathartic for a lot of people.”