Home  /  Everything Else: Interview  /  [InC-terview] Filmmaker Sandi Tan comes full circle with Sundance-winning documentary Shirkers

[InC-terview] Filmmaker Sandi Tan comes full circle with Sundance-winning documentary Shirkers

By Say Peng  /  18 Oct 2018 (Thursday)

In 1992, when American-based Singaporean filmmaker and novelist Sandi Tan was 18 years old, she and her two good friends, 'Eating Air' co-director Jasmine Ng and Professor of Film Sophie Siddique, shot an indie low-budget guerilla-style noir starring Tan as the teenage assassin S, called 'Shirkers'.

Made 3 years before Eric Khoo's 'Mee Pok Man', 'Shirkers' could have been a landmark Singapore film.

But all 70 of the 16mm film reels disappeared, stolen by Tan's mentor Georges Cardona, and remained missing for more than 20 years.

Out of the blue one day, Tan received boxes of Cardona's belongings. Cardona had passed away and his widow had mailed the boxes to Tan. It turned out that the boxes contained the long lost film reels of Shirkers.

In January this year, 'Shirkers', now refashioned into a documentary, finally saw the light of day. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival's World Cinema Documentary Competition, where Tan won Best Directing.

InCinemas speaks to Sandi about the long and winding journey of 'Shirkers'.

InCinemas: What was it like to revisit the film with your fellow collaborators, Jasmine Ng and Sophia Siddhique, more than 20 years later?​
Sandi: The negatives were returned to me in 2011-2012—totaling 700 minutes of 16mm footage in all. Jasmine and Sophie did not see the footage until our premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018. It was the perfect unveiling—for my entire crew (including my American editors and producers, Israeli composer and Canadian cinematographer), plus Jasmine and Sophie, to see it together for the first time with a full house at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City. I was told before the premiere by a Sundance programmer that the Egyptian was a magical space—and he was right. Incidentally this theatre was also where Steven Soderbergh’s 'Sex, Lies and Videotape' (alluded to in 'Shirkers') had been unveiled decades before. I believe the original Shirkers footage is living its best life within 'Shirkers' (2018) because the story of the entire enterprise, now involving characters on different continents, is quite the epic road movie itself!

The whole journey of 'Shirkers' had been another gargantuan enterprise. Before anything could be done, I had to have the 16mm footage digitized at Modern VideoFilm, a post house in Burbank, California that worked on a lot of Criterion Blu-Ray transfers. This took a lot of asking around and research because not many places knew what to do with 16mm film anymore. I found same the colorist who worked on the Douglas Sirk Blu-Rays for Criterion (if you’ve seen his films, you’d know his movies are famed for their gorgeous palette) and he worked on the dailies with me. As he was somebody who had no prior knowledge of Singapore and no connection to the Shirkers saga whatsoever, when his jaw dropped looking at the footage of 1992 Singapore, I knew I had the kernel for very special here that could potentially reach a far larger audience than even teenage me could have ever anticipated. 
You were invited to the 2016 Sundance Documentary Fellows programme. What did you learn there that helped you make the film into what it is today?  
Sandi: This was a game changer for me as I was set up with meetings with potential collaborators (from grant-giving places, to producers and editors) I would never otherwise have met. It was basically a speed-dating introduction into the American independent filmmaking community and for industry persons to start tracking the progress of the film even if they did not get involved early on. So much of this business is about tracking and being on the community’s radar.

Being a Sundance Fellow made you a vetted quantity, but of course still it would still remain a long, hard, lonely road ahead because 'Shirkers' is not a project many in American documentary film knew how to envisage or imagine a path for. It was not an easy sell in an arena largely devoted to current affairs and social issues filmmaking. But as ever, you eventually find your allies and they stick by you. In my case it was the Sundance Institute and Cinereach, the highly-selective New York film company that also backed arthouse hits like 'The Florida Project', 'Sorry To Bother You' and Oscar nominee 'Strong Island'.

What impact did losing Shirkers have on your young filmmaking aspirations?​
Sandi: I’d put all of my obsessions into that one project—my desire to make an epic road movie in one of the smallest countries in the world, casting my aging grandmother as my grandmother and my adorable baby cousin (before she lost her cuteness) as my baby cousin, capturing all my favorite unknown corners of Singapore that were sure to disappear like the mannequin shops of Outram Park and the 1950s apartment blocks near Labrador Park, as well as finding a space to show off the talents of my friends be it in production design or acting or soundtrack composing.

It was a huge blow—mainly because we had accomplished what still looks to me like a gargantuan feat, shooting in over a hundred locations and catching Singapore at a crucial crossroads in its national and international identity, and then having NOTHING to prove we had done this!

Instead of being a rallying call for other ambitious young dreamers like myself, I was left with a black hole. I wasn’t completely destroyed—in 1995 I made the short 'Moveable Feast' and in 2001 the short 'Gourmet Baby' (which premiered at the New York Film Festival), both of which played at over 100 festivals and were broadcast internationally. But something profound was forever lost—it was like getting my wings clipped a bit. My friends and I were superheroes for one summer and now we were doomed to be regular people forevermore—with nobody to vouch for the experience but ourselves. For 25 years, that summer would remain both a gift and a curse.
When did Netflix come into the picture?
Sandi: Netflix picked up the film at the Sundance Film Festival and had no hand in the creative development of the film--but the execs at Netflix are a joy to work with, brainy cinephiles and perfectionists all. And they're famously nice, too! Truly antithetical to old studio exec cliches! They know their stuff and they care. I have the best team I could ever hope to have behind me. It's truly remarkable when I stop to think about it: images from a tiny island's stolen past can now be seen in 190 countries (subtitled in 25 languages) around the world. That in its own way is a true story that's stranger than fiction!

The original reels for Shirkers was lost for more than 20 years and you got it back a few years ago. At what point did you conceive of this documentary?​
Sandi: This was a story that I left buried for years, even decades, and when the boxes of materials (70 cans of 16mm footage, storyboards, script copies, logs, etc.) were returned to me in 2011-2012, I was reluctant to re-open this Pandora’s box of long suppressed heartbreak. Also I was about to publish my novel 'The Black Isle' and was busy preparing its launch, and didn’t have the bandwidth to deal with it. I knew that once I opened these boxes, it would consume my life and become a strange quest that would suck me into a black hole for years. I wasn’t wrong
So I stacked the boxes as they arrived into one neat vertical stack in my living room, to be dealt with later…someday. It took three years before I had the courage and the time to open these Pandora’s boxes up, and I was right: I was consumed immediately.
Will you continue to make films?
Sandi: Of course, I will continue making films. Are you crazy?

Shirkers will have a rare big-screen Singapore premiere at the Capitol this coming Saturday!

Get your tickets here: https://www.gv.com.sg/GVMovieDetails#/movie/0543
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