True/False Film Fest: ‘Shirkers’

Erstwhile teenage screenwriter Sandi Tan reclaims her art from male narcissism.

Sandi Tan

The True/False Film Festival is a wonderfully diverse program. From war docs to biopics, sports pieces and rock docs, the programmers’ discerning tastes make for an eclectic weekend of highs and lows. Shirkers, the new documentary coming to Netflix by filmmaker Sandi Tan, is that rare sort of doc you pray you stumble upon at True/False. It’s the kind of quirky personal narrative whose spiritual sister exists in the confessional graphic novel. Not that Shirkers looks and acts like a comic book, but rather, in the tradition of Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, Fun Home or Marielle Heller’s adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’a Diary of a Teenage Girl, its a deeply emotional autobiographical story adapted into visual form. The following contains spoilers.

When she was a teenager, Tan and her friends made a feature-length movie. This documentary is about that production. But that’s just the beginning. She goes into rich detail of growing up in Singapore and seeking out other “weirdos” like herself who also liked cult films and unpopular music. Luckily we hear from those weirdos today (Sophie, Jasmine) who are now accomplished and fascinating women who are happy to look into the camera and tell Tan that as much as she is a wonderful person she is also an asshole (as only a best friend can say). Their particular set of interests leads them to an arts scene of musicians and filmmakers and zinesters. This eventually leads her to start taking film classes, which is where she meets the villain of the film, George.

The texture of Shirkers is beautiful the way the traces of a black sharpie on the sleeve of a mixtape is beautiful. The audience is treated to visually arresting collages produced 25 years ago that are now given new life in animated sequences. As many of us “weirdos” recall our teenage years, we may feel right at home in this clique of creative types. Her longing to create something bigger and to put her mark on something beautiful and unique will remind you of your own such longing. It leads her to start filming night drives with George, who is teaching their film classes. The night drives eventually, in a roundabout way, lead to George and Sandi taking a road trip across the US. Together, just the two of them. She is probably 18 or 19 at this point, so she doesn’t tell her parents, because George is married, and they are alone. This trip is the shot in the arm she needs to write the screenplay for the movie she will make with her friends — that George will direct.

“Shirkers” is also the title of the film they made together in 1992. Tan’s narration guides us through a montage of the events of the film. A character named “S” (based on Tan) is a 16-year-old serial killer who also rescues children and protects them from growing up, keeping them in a kind of parallel fantasy world. It’s an inspired story, like J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye meets Henry Darger’s The Vivian Girls, as told by David Lynch. Tan tells us that they wrote to Kodak and got free color film, which gives it this beautiful, warm texture, making all the colorful outfits and costumes pop. You would almost call Shirkers outsider art if its campiness wasn’t so intentional. These artists were inspired by Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape, so their artfulness was very much planned. Had the original film bee produced, I believe it might have become a cult classic and lead Tan and co. to other incredible projects, and we would include her name in that ’90s class of indie darlings like Quentin Tarantino and early Kevin Smith.

But, alas, Tan reveals that George, as the director, would often seemingly intentionally sabotage filming, and after it was complete, he took the reels and stopped speaking to Tan, her friends, and everyone on the production team. In her narration Tan admits she soon grew to doubt there was ever film in the camera to begin with. She would receive cryptic tapes from George, both audio and video, that never stated his commitment to process the reels and complete the editing process. He just ghosted them. This “shirking” of responsibility ends up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, like if Linklater had never completed Slacker.

The years pass. Tan moves to the UK, then to New York, then to Los Angeles. She becomes a film critic, publishes a novel, enrolls in film school at Columbia University. Sometimes people would bring up Shirkers to her, but she was sick of talking about it because she had no explanation and felt powerless to do anything about it.

The time spent on George’s narcissism after this point is frustrating but intoxicating. On the one hand, he’s a liar and an asshole and doesn’t deserve the time she gives him. On the other, Tan’s search for answers is compelling. Most of us know and have been impacted by at least one narcissistic pathological liar in our lives, and it’s tempting to do a full forensic analysis of everyone he’s ever hurt and diagramming every lie he’s ever told. I would be curious to see if there will be any final edits to Shirkers before its wider release, as there were several logical stopping points that then gave way to more content. However, I’m glad I’m not in charge of making those cuts, as the film shown at True/False is a fine piece of work. It ended up taking the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award at Sundance before being bought by Netflix, and currently holds a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Let’s hope Tan continues her work in film, no matter the setbacks she may face.

RATING 8 / 10