3 out of 5

Directed by: Sandi Tan

I traditionally stay away from documentaries, but Shirkers showed up on a couple of year-end lists with a dash of “the less you know about it the better…” mystery.  This was coupled with some casual mentions of the #metoo movement, which obviously then cast a certain light on what may transpire.

…Or perhaps I’m reading too much into it: perhaps I put on that air of mystery; perhaps I made assumptions when they weren’t intended.

I traditionally stay away from documentaries for a couple reasons: that forcing real life stories into beginning, middles, and ends tends to cheapen them, or create “drama” when the reality is much more subtle; and / or that there’s often an agenda behind many docs, making it difficult to discern what’s been left out.  Those are massive generalisms that overlook many key flicks, and I’m sure there counters to each opinion by fans of documentaries, but wholly overwhelming both of those things is a simple: I prefer fiction.  I prefer hightened reality.  Same goes for books.  Yes: truth is stranger and etcetera, but fact is fact, and I am grounded by it.  Whereas fiction allows me (or a screenwriter and director) to take me to places not limited by that ground.

Shirkers itself is a counter to both things I mention, actually.  And yet, it didn’t change my opinion of docs, nor would I have included it on any personal year end list.  It’s definitely an interesting watch, though.

When a teen in Singapore, Sandi Tan put together a film called Shirkers with a few friends.  It was encouraged, and directed, by a man named Georges – a grown man, who ran a little film discussion class – despite significant money, resource, and experience qualms.  The effort gained a lot of attention for the age of its main creators as well as for its place in a constrained Singapore-made movie environment.  And then, upon completion, the movie… disappeared.  Sandi and her producer and editor had gone their separate ways to college, waiting for information on Georges as to when their film reels would be processed and ready for editing, but: nothing.  Georges, in turn, essentially disappeared as well.  Twenty-five years later, Sandi attempts to put together the pieces of what happened and why.

If we expand #metoo to include any scenario in which someone exerts power over another, I can see how Shirkers fits.  The, er, “traditional” assumption of that movement to involve some type of abuse – generally sexual, but emotional as well – or coercion applies in a high level sense, as Georges is discussed as being something of a master manipulator, but it still came across, to me, as an odd association.  Tan does acknowledge the obvious oddity of Georges relationship to her: during a questionable road trip she and Georges once took, he asked her to touch her on his “belly,” and, when ignored, did not (according to Tan’s account) bring it up again.  It’s a note that isn’t mentioned or reoccur elsewhere, and does introduce the question of whether or not Georges behaviors – which affected more than just Sandi, male and female – weren’t ways of expressing things he was otherwise oppressing, but it’s very much (from my viewing) besides the point: Shirkers is partially about Georges, but moreso incidentally: it’s about Tan rediscovering her film, something she’d refused and / or been unable to talk on since its loss.

Which is where, ultimately, I felt like Shirkers wandered a bit: it’s rather personal, allowing for a lot of poetic reflection on the mercurial nature of time and visually representing this theme through a lot of reversed footage.  Footage which is from Shirkers, thereby telling us that, at some point, Tan must get her footage back.

So the mystery and the #metoo feel like strange things to highlight, which is partially just my luck of the reviews I read, but I think this could have been assuaged by more directly addressing it in the film.  Sandi, instead, avoids telling us quite a bit for quite a long time, and I could assume some meta-commentary on what that delaying tactic causes one to imagine as the ‘reveals’ regarding the original Shirkers’ creation and notorious history, but I feel like that’s something of a disservice to the processing of feelings Tan attempts through her doc’s creation.  Still, there were likely “sharper” ways to compose this that would have made it more effective to me.

Then again, I traditionally stay away from documentaries.