The Way She Was: In Shirkers Sandi Tan Looks Back at a Youth Filled with Creative Passion and Personal Betrayals

Kids are weird. Most kids. All kids, maybe? Before external pressures and internal anxieties combine to extinguish their spirits, kids revel in their most outlandish ideas, they’ll explain their looniest schemes to whoever will listen. But they don’t usually stay that way for long. Those who can retain that joyful weirdness past their “little kid” years, past the onset of puberty (shudder), are often cast out of social circles and branded as strange. And it is strange, a rare ability, to be able to hold on to all the ways you are different and contrary, to those parts of yourself that make other people uncomfortable, rather than assimilating into the adolescent throng. The weird among us, perhaps more than anyone, understand the social safety in numbers, but still stand on their own, defiant and usually more than a little lonely.

I once had a friend like that – her name was Natalie* and we were best friends and weirdos together for most of our childhood. We had pet invisible dinosaurs we had to greet every morning or they would feel neglected and leave us. We had detailed plans for building a spaceship that would someday take us away from all this (gestures at our  extremely comfortable childhoods). And when we were six, we wrote a book together about three best animal friends who escaped to a magic world only to watch it burn to the ground. Truly the only thing that could have interfered with our adventures was one of us suddenly refusing to play along. That was me, right around the time I turned 12. Suddenly hyperaware of the idea that I should be spending more time attracting the attention of the opposite sex and bidding to become popular (ha!) rather than appeasing imaginary dinos, I packed away all those old ways of being – funny, gross, spontaneous and silly. I gave up on the carefree association of ideas regardless of what was possible or practical. That was all replaced by a perpetual inner commentary on my every social interaction: Can I say this now? Should I do that, or is that not what everyone else would do? Convinced there was no place in this new hormone-driven and cutthroat world for the stranger parts of my self, I surrendered or hid most of them away for the next decade or two.

But Natalie never got lost in that way. She stayed weird, was an outcast through high school and now is a successful animator who cosplays in her spare time. I’d say just from social media (we don’t live close to each other and haven’t seen each other in person in decades), she’s still living weird and free, something I’m very proud and pretty jealous of. It means she’s closer to who she was, who we were, when we were designing our multi-level spaceship mansion on the playground in 3rd grade. And as a result, I would imagine, those times and that mindset feel more accessible for her than it does for me: for her, maybe the magic of that time is a little easier to conjure.

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That magic, the magic of being able to fearlessly embrace your weird self, came rushing back to me as I watched Sandi Tan’s new Netflix documentary, Shirkers. Tan seems to have a lot in common with my friend Natalie, and Shirkers is about a time in her life when she was mature and determined enough to will a full-fledged artistic project into being, but still weird enough for it to become something wholly original and wondrous. That artistic project was a feature-length film (also called ‘Shirkers’) written by Tan and shot by she and her friends in 1992 when she was 19 years old. A road movie described as “Singapore’s first indie,” the film centered around Tan as she played a teenage assassin called “S” who encounters dancing dogs and wayward children as she wanders through her home country, an island that can be driven across in 40 minutes. Shirkers, the 2018 documentary, explores how that movie got made 25 years ago, the rollercoaster of events that peppered the film’s production and aftermath and who Tan was while it was all happening.

As a result, we see a lot of 19-year-old Sandi Tan onscreen, and 19 year old Sandi Tan was a force to be reckoned with. Seemingly born with a desire to create, Tan grew up in a Singapore where censorship meant many outside influences weren’t available to her via conventional routes. In Shirkers we see how she and a few close friends would scrap and steal to get their hands on David Lynch films while worshipping at the altar of J.D. Salinger and punk subculture. By the age of 16 they were putting out their own ‘zine – a riotous mishmash of artistic forms and personal statements that serves as a stylistic prelude to the movie they’d soon be making together. With her best friend, Jasmine, and a whole motley crew of Singapore’s underground scene at her side, Sandi Tan became unstoppable. During one present day interview, she assesses some of the choices of her younger self by explaining, “I was bold like that.” Though she also concedes she could be a jerk in her dogmatic pursuit of making art. Admissions like these point to the fact that in Shirkers, Tan isn’t looking at her past through rose-colored glasses. She captures its magic while being true to its messiness.

What else does Shirkers capture? The power of a group of young women liberated from society’s expectations by their own artistic drive. The footage from 1992, both from the movie and behind the scenes, presents an array of colorful characters, but none make a greater impression than Tan and her friends Jasmine and Sophie. They’re three self-taught teenage filmmakers who attempt a feat that would make most Hollywood heavyweights cry – preproduction and filming of a feature-length film over the course of a few weeks. Those weeks stretch over a summer when they all come back to Singapore on a break from their jobs and studies in various countries.

Tan’s unleashed creativity and the group’s brazenness gives Shirkers a frenetic energy as they hurry from storyboarding to casting to location scouting. And the scenes we see from the movie are a delight – a sort of Wes Anderson meets Agnes Varda meets Michelle Gondry fairytale where an abundance of style balances out plot inconsistencies. 1992 Shirkers should have been an indie hit. But no one ever saw Shirkers in 1992 or has in the 25 years since. The reason? The involvement of Georges Cardona, the friends’ much older American mentor, who directed the movie and then one day up and disappeared with all 700 canisters of film on which it had been captured. The mystery of who Georges really was and what happens after that was probably my least favorite part of Shirkers, and not just because we never get a neat cinematic resolution to those questions. I simply wanted the focus to stay with Sandi, not the character “S”, but the real-life Sandi, who proves to be a heroine equal parts complicated and inspiring. Shirkers is an ode to her staying weird and that’s all I needed from this brave and brilliant documentary.

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