In the opening shots of Sandi Tan’s intriguing documentary, Shirkers, a goose floats backward through the frame. Color distorted, the serene landscape of a manicured park is inexplicably bathed in purple, and, as a result, fundamentally cinematic. The notion of going backward is central in this film, which is about the filmmaker’s lost (or stolen?) past. As a teenager in 1980s Singapore, Tan was in love with movies. With a group of friends, whom she interviews for the documentary, Tan started film clubs and film magazines, veritable shrines to her cinematic heroes. She also directed an avant-garde fictional feature under the guidance of a man who would become her life’s biggest mystery—a film teacher, a seducer of teenage girls, a manipulative con artist. That film, which they called Shirkers at the time, is gloriously woven through Tan’s documentary. As she returns to the personal and cinematic past in her search for an explanation about how the present came to be, the genius footage from Shirkers, saturated with color, humor, and originality, continually reappears, giving the documentary blissful nostalgia and infusing it with unparalleled magic.
Contrary to its title and its origin story, Shirkers is about the most determined kind of filmmaker, insistent on rescuing her art and her past from oblivion — or from theft — and insinuating her film into the history of both Singaporean and women’s cinema. Guided by her personal voiceover, we journey with Tan on a search that eventually recovers the long lost film from a secret basement in the United States, where it mysteriously resided for decades. Shirkers is a precious act of restoration: both of art and, more poignantly, of self.
Shilyh Warren is Associate Professor of Film & Aesthetic Studies at The University of Texas at Dallas. She writes about documentary and women’s cinema and is the author of Subject to Reality: Women and Documentary (University of Illinois, 2019). She loves sharing unlikely women’s films by programming public screening events and when asked what her favorite movie is might answer My Name is Oona (Gunvor Nelson, 1969).