Hot Docs 2018 Review: SHIRKERS, Weaponized Narcissism
Sandi Tan is the writer, director, narrator, and star of Shirkers, the documentary slash true crime story of her first film (also called Shirkers) which she made with her high school pals, and a mysterious American benefactor.
The benefactor, named Georges, claimed he was the inspiration for James Spader's character in Soderbergh's Sex, Lies & Videotape, but postures like Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard's Breathless. I say true crime because this documentary is a detective story about Georges' theft of the footage of Shirkers, the film that was never made.
By virtue of it never being made, and none of the footage ever being screened, Shrikers has become somewhat of a legend in certain corners of the Singapore film community; many people had a role in the making of the picture. Twenty years later, Tan has been a film critic and novelist in Los Angeles, and reconnects with all the responsible parties in her homeland to figure out what the hell happened in those intangible dog-days of high school, where everything seemed possible and were full of convoluted drama.
Tan opens the film with a speech on 'Singapore Exceptionalism' in which she infers that 'American Exceptionalism' barely holds a candle to it. She then claims at one point that Shirkers was poised to be the shining experimental star of her country's burgeoning cinema. When a certain punk-culture magazine shuns her (and her friends) from contributing, she declares that they were too good for the rag, and writes her own damn zine (Exploding Cat), and casts the editor of the original magazine as a kindergarden crossing guard in her movie.
Her same friend, Jasmine Ng, who has been, in the ensuing years, successful as a filmmaker in Singapore (Eating Air, Pink Paddles), chastises her openly. In one of the talking heads segments of the film to the effect of, and I paraphrase, 'There you go again...making this about you. It feels like we are straight back in high school!'
This is a pivot-point in the film, where it begins to transcend the mystery of the lost film at the hands of a sinister male role model, into a journey of self-reflection. Tan asks herself, "Am I an asshole?" A healthy question for anyone to ask themselves often, by the way.
The mystery of Georges' (and the original Shirkers film canisters) disappearance forms the back-bone of the film -- and I'll not spoil that, which is the obvious hook, and perhaps in light of Making A Murderer and The Keepers, is the reason Netflix picked up the film. But I did very much enjoy watching the narrative of the film being yanked in the direction to temper Tan's narcissism by feeding her narcissism by reflecting on her narcissism. This is the Inception of autobiographies, awash in a gorgeous amount of colourful and misty 16mm footage.
I have always considered the need to mythologize your high-school years a particularly American pathology -- maybe it goes along with the exceptionalism? Shirkers, the documentary, makes no bones about it, as clips of Ghost World and Rushmore abound. Or if you like the idea of community formed through movie making at the hubris of a self-absorbed auteur (not shown, but certainly evoked are Son of Rambow, American Movie, Super 8), then Shirkers delivers a 'road trip of the ego' that is equal parts nostalgic and cathartic, particularly so, if you are into Sandi Tan.