July: Shirkers

“The Sound of Loss”

Alix Beeston (Cardiff University)

Cut to interior, a living room in lime paint and afternoon shadows. Two children, a girl and a boy; a woman in a nurse’s uniform; and S, the teenage assassin of director Sandi Tan’s dreams. The cut is also a click, the sound of a slide projector operated by the girl, locking an image under light.

Suddenly there is silence. Their living room—and my own, as I watch them from my blue-gray couch—feels thick with it, weirdly swollen.

The girl presses the button on the projector to release another image and a beach scene slides noiselessly into view. S laughs, toothy and soundless, but her amusement is cut short when the girl has an epileptic seizure. As the nurse calms the girl down, cradling her in her arms, the whirring of the projector fades up. It’s jittery and tense, but it’s still a sign of life: a mechanical heartbeat where none was to be found.

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Silence in Shirkers is the sound of loss, the flat line of creativity and innocence. The footage of S and the others watching the slideshow is from some 70 reels of film shot in Singapore in the summer of 1992 by Tan and her friends, then nineteen-year-olds high on unchecked ambition and cinephilic passion. “We’re going to be the Coen sisters I swear,” Tan declared in a letter to her best friend. The young women spent an intense two months putting Tan’s original screenplay onto 16mm film: wrangling free stock and gear from Kodak, pulling together a ragtag cast of neighbors and family, sending out classmates as location scouts across the island, and shooting around day jobs and household chores. But then the raw materials for Singapore’s first road movie were stolen from Tan and her friends. Georges Cardona, the mysterious older man who had come on as director of the film, had vanished with the lot. Reels, sound recordings, storyboards, scripts, notes—even receipts.

The lush, kitschy footage from that summer is the spine of Shirkers, Tan’s documentary account of her film’s making and unmaking—so we know, as the story of its theft unfolds, that at some point it must have been returned to her. Almost 20 years after shooting, in 2011, Tan receives a call from Cardona’s ex-wife: Cardona is dead, he’s left behind the film reels, and they’re in pristine condition, preserved, improbably, against the degradation of humidity and time.

But this moment with S, the children, and the nurse in the green-walled living room, when silence fills the space, stuffing it like so much cotton wool: this is when we learn that sound has been severed from image. The sound recordings are gone, forever, and all that remains are mute bodies, roaming around Singapore’s pastel-hued streets in the brittle sunlight, their mouths gaping after speech.

It’s a devastating revelation, held back until the last twenty minutes of Shirkers, and especially so after the discovery of the lost footage and its promise of a film restored, of cinema history rewritten. Like all unfinished or lost films, Tan’s documentary asks what if: what if things had been otherwise, what if Cardona wasn’t such a cruel jerk, what if the film had been a clarion call for Singaporean indie film in the early 90s, ushering in the country’s own New Wave? Shirkers’s mood, in other words, is a subjunctive one; it evokes hypothetical possibilities. In some alternative dimension, Tan found the freedom and fame she sought as a precocious, untrained, talented young filmmaker; she, alongside her cinematic alter ego S, saved the world with nothing more than “toys, games, and imagination.”

In this sense Shirkers doubles the recovery work of feminist film scholars, who raid the archives of cinema’s past—like Cardona’s stash—to uncover women’s forgotten or erased creative labor. In the silence of Shirkers’s lost voices echoes the vast history of women stymied or refused in cinema history. Perhaps, then, the girl’s seizure in the green room is a physical reaction to soundlessness, registering its traumatic absence.

Tan has concealed this absence and teased us over it throughout Shirkers. The scenes from the original film are synchronized with diegetic sounds—the click of the projector, the giggles of teenage girls, the clatter of objects falling to the floor. At several points, S goes to speak and Tan cuts away, both hiding and foregrounding the words that won’t, can’t, pass S’s lips. Sometimes Tan ventriloquizes her younger self, reading lines of dialogue from the screenplay.

This ventriloquism, like the musicians’ re-recording of the film’s intended theme song, is a deliberately imperfect dubbing of the original. It reckons with the film’s irrevocable loss while also re-voicing it, rearticulating it. So Shirkers is the old film with a new soundtrack. When Tan was nineteen, the collaboration essential to film production turned sour as her mentor, a man bent by unfeeling egotism, absconded with her work. Yet for Tan, to stitch together image and sound, past and present, is also to bring together old friends, to use the space of documentary film as a site for community. As the melancholy theme song plays, she tells us, “I know I’ll never get all of my friends in the same place, at the same time, ever again. But here they all are, with me.”

By the magic of editing, Tan’s friends are here, in the film, sharing space as interview subjects. And thus Shirkers metaphorically returns them, with Tan, to those sweaty summer afternoons in 1992. It crowds them onto the couch so that together they can watch a slideshow of images, one replacing another in a flickering, fragmentary series.

“Residues of Teenage Experience”

Aparna Sharma (UCLA)

Sandi Tan’s award-winning 2018 documentary, Shirkers, is premised on the permeability of dreams, memories, and cinema. Mixing elements of a road movie, compilation film, and autobiography, Shirkers is a rich collage in which Tan revisits her youth and probes how and why her first film by the same title — shot in 1992 —was both facilitated and thwarted by her mentor/collaborator, Georges Cardona. Packed with sounds, images, and sensations, Shirkers provokes thought about the lived consequences of shared dreams and memories. It excavates the past, giving us a sense of how memory, trauma and ageing interrelate, and how time is not experienced along a neat, linear arc.

Shirkers (1992) was set in Singapore where Tan and her friends, who collaborated on the making of that film, had grown up. Tan now returns to Singapore and meets these friends – and the film’s cast, critics, and supporters – to ask them, with the benefit of distance, to revisit the making and impact of Shirkers (1992). Later in the film, she searches for traces by which to better understand Cardona using interviews with his friends, family, and collaborators in America. A crucial component of the film is the conversations between Tan and her two close collaborators, Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique Harvey. As the friends look back at their teenage years and share impressions about the film that was lost, we are introduced to highly nuanced tones of girl friendships that have evolved over time. From the excitement around making a film together to distinct approaches towards work and the frictions between competing personalities — the film introduces a world of girlhood that is energetic, thoughtful, rebellious, unpredictable, and predictable at once.

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Central to the film’s construction of the teenage world that Tan and friends cohabited are reconstructions of the visual culture that interested them. Singapore, with its ban on chewing gum and censorship across cinema and music, was to be countered head-on through The Exploding Cat, a zine that Tan and Co. made. With an aesthetic palette interested in Brecht, surrealism, Tamil cinema, and punk among others, Tan & Co. were going to shake uptight Singapore out of its censored stupor. This introduction to the visual culture Tan and her friends were immersed in offers rich context to the teenage world of their memories. The film’s emphases on girl friendships and their immersion in an underground Singaporean culture both as authors and recipients, resonate when seen in the context of girlhood representations on screen more broadly. Often depictions of girls situate them within the binaries of the can-do and the at-risk – with the former being the girl, who is a go-getter and the latter, the one who is prone to failure. The unexplained loss of Shirkers (1992) gives a sense of the naiveté and vulnerability of the teenage Tan and her friends. At the same time, their reflections about that experience now as well as back in their teenage years and their senses of instinct, comprehension and frustration, prevent us of from seeing them as purely at-risk figures. The very act of making Shirkers (2018), revisiting the lost film and how that loss has lingered, constitutes a kind of redemptive confrontation with the past.

Shirkers (2018) concludes on a rather affirmative note. It is as though key persons associated with the 1992 film have, through the making of the 2018 film, gone through a rite of passage. They have spoken about the old film and in so doing, confined it to a defined place in their lives. The film’s definitive ending is in a way too literal and situates the entire re-visitation of the 1992 film as a narrative with what seems, at best, an unwarranted closure. However, the ending aside, Tan’s persistence in pursuing the old film, which she did ultimately find, and her attempt at understanding the trauma its loss caused, is depicted in deftly layered terms. Such an approach affords valuable understanding of how the past remains alive, permeates the present and calls for negotiation even after an uncertain and prolonged hiatus.

Residues of teenage experiences and the lost film are present in the now and, Shirkers (2018) actively engages with these residues. They are revisited, mined and given shape so as to make sense and carry forward. This turn to the past is significant in the film because it establishes a necessary continuity between teenage girlhood and mature womanhood. The different stages of life in which we see the film’s figures, the film suggests, are not discrete or exclusive temporal units. Such a take on life and time can be seen as an intervention in the context of the escalating consumerist societies in which we live, be those of the ‘west’ and the ‘rest’, global north or south, America or Asia.

Consumerist cultures thrive on images — literal or aspirational — of youth, the young. Visual cultures in our everyday lives are packed with images of young bodies, often trapped in the modes of hyper-sexualized representations. It is almost as if: To be is to be young! The reification of being young rests on the abstraction of youth from life as a steadily accumulating passage of time in which all matter — bodies, cameras, skin, film stock, film aesthetics — change and transform. It perhaps did not set out to do so, but Shirkers (2018) reveals in a very subtle way, how aging is a process in which what has passed or is old gets transformed, altered, not erased, and certainly not hermetically secured somewhere back there or back then. The past passes away, and yet, it impinges on the present. It remains and persists within it.

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