The award-winning documentary almost never saw the light of day

By now you should have read and heard about Sandi Tan’s miraculous Shirkers (our review here). The story of how the Singapore-born filmmaker made a ground-breaking indie film in the ‘90s, lost it to a callous mentor, and had to grapple with the trauma for years before suddenly having the film reels returned to her, out of the blue. It sounds almost like a dream sequence. Fast-forward to present day, and Tan is now the proud owner of a Sundance Film Festival directing award—plus a film globally distributed on the world’s biggest streaming media service.

But this film that has catapulted Singapore into the global spotlight (once again, after Kirsten Tan’s Pop Aye) almost didn’t come to be. 45-year-old Tan said it took her three years to muster the courage to open up the boxes of footage—a literal “Pandora’s Box” of bad memories—when they were returned.

“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,” she said. “I wasn’t wrong.”

It’s a relief for us all that she eventually did. Besides earning its accolades both for Tan and for Singapore, Shirkers marks a crucial lost part of Singapore’s film history—a missing piece of the puzzle caught somewhere between the Malay films of yonder and the slow rise of 1990s pioneers Medium Rare and Mee Pok Man. In an unfortunate way, it represents also a lost opportunity for Tan and her crew to have made bigger names for themselves locally; perhaps if the original had never been lost, she too would have been, by now, a household name synonymous with the likes of Eric Khoo and Royston Tan, and not have had to wait for a big win at Sundance for her own peers back home to take notice. Still, as Singapore now scrambles to lay claim to a Los Angeles-based Tan, it seems only well-deserved that it's she who, after years of turmoil, finally gets the last laugh. 

We had a chat with the artistic visionary on her decades-long journey to rediscovering Shirkers.

Congratulations on the film! What have you been up to in the last year?

This! [Shirkers is] all-consuming! It’s very surreal to think back one year; it’s hugely different. We were finishing the final cut to submit Shirkers to Sundance. It was a very leisurely thing. I wasn’t in a hurry, because I knew we already had a very nice cut, though I know most people are in a mad rush. So I had a very pleasant time. I was doing sound design with Lawrence Everson, my great sound designer, and having so much fun. I was nit-picking and... worked him really hard. But I never would have imagined that I would be on this whirlwind tour with this film. [It] would be seen by people around the world. I never would have imagined that.

Walk us through when the reels were first returned to youWhat were you doing at that point? How did you feel?

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 (Hachette USA, 2012) and was busy preparing its launch, and didn’t have the bandwidth to deal with it.

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.

What made you decide to turn it into a documentary?

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 favourite 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.

This was a story that I left buried for years, even decades. (But) it was the story of my secret superhero identity. And my secret superhero identity was my 18-year-old self. How could I resist?

It’s easy to see from the film how difficult the entire event was for you. How do you feel about the whole situation?

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.

Sophia Siddique Harvey and Georges Cardona on the original set of Shirkers

Why do you think Shirkers sits well with audiences?

I think it’s a very universal story of kids following their passions. It’s an intensely personal story but also a very universal one. It’s kids at their peak of fearlessness I think, before they’re disillusioned. Following their passions, banding together and doing this gargantuan endeavour and then having their dreams broken—but then basically not to let that take you down and to overcome it; even if it takes many, many years. I guess you just have to be patient, you have to persevere and you have to be tough.

It’s a story of triumph. I think this is why people have been responding so well and so strongly. A huge variety of people from around the world; different kinds of people, different ages, both men and women. Especially young people have been coming up to me, often crying and just hugely inspired. I’ve had people follow this film from festival to festival, which never happens for most films, especially documentaries, but I’ve had that. So people just feel this as a film that they would come to over and over when they feel they need a jolt of inspiration. This is what they’ve told me.

How are you different now from when you first filmed the original, as a person and as a filmmaker?

I’m very much the same person, but I’m working now in the 21st Century, which means that you can actually do amazing things—like how I finished and edited this film in my garage, basically. Technology is so accessible now, it’s very empowering. When you realise you’re not the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but the Sorcerer, you have full control of lots of media. You can actually make amazing things. I am the 21st Century version of myself back then.

Catch Shirkers on Netflix now.