Imagine you’re a young filmmaker. You write, plan and shoot an entire movie—and then someone you trust takes all of the footage and completely disappears.
That’s the real story of the documentary Shirkers, which was first screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018, before being picked up by Netflix and released on the streaming service. It will be screened at the Palm Springs International Film Festival on Jan. 4, 5 and 12.
In 1992, a Singapore teenager obsessed with cinema, Sandi Tan, gathered her friends and set out to make a film she’d written called Shirkers. Georges Cardona, an American living in Singapore, was Tan’s film teacher and the director of the film. When the film was finished, Cardona vanished.
Years later, after Cardona’s death, the film canisters were found and returned to Tan, but without the audio tracks. The documentary starts off as an unsolved mystery, as Tan explains the story, shows scenes from the film, and sets out on a quest to try to understand Cardona’s life and what really happened.
During a phone interview with Tan, who now lives in Los Angeles, she acknowledged that her story is rather strange.
“I’ve lived with it for so long that it’s been a big part of my life,” Tan said. “It’s the secret I’ve had to suppress for so many years that belief is not even part of it. … It seems like a story that’s stranger than fiction.”
Singapore has a notoriously authoritarian government, and Tan said there wasn’t an outlet for independent filmmakers back when she shot Shirkers.
“We were really the only people making an independent film, which is why it was such a revolutionary act,” she said. “… It’s a huge chunk of history that was stolen along with it, along with our dreams. … We just did it without any support or permission. We just shot it.”
Tan at the time was a punk-rocker and artist who found a way to get her hands on material that inspired her.
“I was part of the whole mail-art thing where you’d send your collages and zines to people around the world, trading with them, and you could make mixtapes and send them to another friend somewhere else,” she said. “My cousin in Florida was sending me videotapes of movies I wanted; I’d send her homemade T-shirts as trade. It was our version of the internet. My cousin would rent movies from Blockbuster and copy them onto a VHS tape—things like Blue Velvet and Raising Arizona. I was really into David Lynch and the Coen Brothers. I was also obsessed with Tim Burton. I loved Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table; that was a very inspiring film for me.”
The original Shirkers has never been released; the only parts ever publicly shown are the scenes included in the documentary. The fact that the audio has never been found presents a challenge.
“We could put together a silent version of the film in a creative way, but with creative sound,” Tan said. “I’m not sure about dubbing, which is kind of tacky. I really think it could work as a silent movie with subtitles with creative sound and music. A lot of people want to see the original film, and I’m sure there’s some way we could get that done someday.”
She remembered the first time she watched the footage after it was found and returned to her.
“The strange thing is it was exactly the way I remembered it,” she said. “I was very relieved that I wasn’t imagining all this stuff. All the colors, all the locations, the expressions on people’s faces and everything was exactly as it was in my head, but I had no proof of it, and couldn’t tell anyone.
“When I saw the footage in Burbank with someone who was seeing it for the first time and had no idea what the story was, his jaw just dropped. I knew we had something that was extraordinary and a story that had to be told.”
Tan did not have kind things to say about Georges Cardona.
“His way of being creative is to take away the dreams of other people,” she said. “If other people were able to do things, he would help them realize their dreams and take them away. He’s a very fascinating figure, because we have a lot of (his type in) the film and entertainment industry—people who want to create, but create loss and destruction so they are remembered in some way.”
After the loss of the original Shirkers, Tan said she learned some valuable lessons.
“I have never lost my will and desire to be a filmmaker,” she said. “I really rediscovered my confidence and voice with the help of the technology that’s available. You can do amazing things, and it’s liberating and empowering to realize you’re not the sorceress’ apprentice; you’re now the sorcerer.”
Shirkers will be screened as part of the Palm Springs International Film Festival at 1:45 p.m., Friday, Jan. 4, at the Annenberg Theater, 101 N. Museum Drive; 9:30 a.m., Saturday, Jan. 5, at the Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9, 789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Road; and 2:30 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 12, at the Camelot Theatres, 2300 E. Baristo Road. Tickets are $13. For tickets or more information, visit www.psfilmfest.org.