In “Shirkers,” a Stolen Slasher Road Flick Becomes Documentary Gold

A new documentary tells the story of the director who spent decades chasing the man who stole her film.

by Zsófia Paulikovics
Nov 8 2018, 3:25pm

It takes 430 miles, or about six hours, to drive from Dupree, South Dakota to Cheyenne, like Holly Sargis and Kit Carruthers in Badlands. It takes 1548 miles, or about 22 hours, to drive from LA to Houston, like Travis and Hunter Henderson in Paris, Texas. Traversing Singapore, as the teenage killer called S does in the never-released 1992 Singaporean road movie Shirkers, takes less than an hour.

Shirkers the documentary, however, was 30 years in the making and took its director, Sandi Tan, across two continents. It traces the bizarre story of the making and derailment of the original feature. “It was a challenge to turn a place that’s small and sterile and boring into something as mythic as the classic road movies,” Tan told me over Skype on October 26, the morning her award-winning film finally got its release on Netflix.

Tan set out to create Shirkers with her friends Sophia Siddique Harvey, Jasmine Ng, and Georges Cardona in the summer of 1992, writing the script and starring as S, a Holden Caulfield type collecting a ragtag group of friends, then murdering them along the way. Cardona, an older, enigmatic American who claimed to be a director, signed on, and then, when shooting wrapped, absconded with all the footage, eventually disappearing from their lives completely and taking Shirkers with him.

In 2011, Tan received an email from Cardona’s wife informing her that he was dead, and that she had found 70 cans of unopened film labelled “Shirkers.” “When the cans arrived, it took me three years to open them,” says Tan, “because I knew they would be so radioactive. I knew as soon as I opened this Pandora’s box, it would become an obsession, and it did.”

Tan met Ng in the Singapore of the 1980s, a sheltered former British colony on the verge of an economic boom. They were starved for a cultural alternative to what the country’s conservative rulebook allowed and began writing for BigO, Singapore’s main underground music magazine, at 15. Soon, they were making their own zine, Exploding Cat, which garnered international attention. Tan spent high school “being pen pals with Parisian Situationists and men in American state penitentiaries.” In 1991, they met Harvey in a short course on filmmaking, led by Cardona. The four of them bonded over their love of the indie film canon and would go on long night drives after the class ended, even though, as Tan says in the film, “We knew he had a wife and a baby.”

Tan and Cardona grew especially close. “I like being your best friend,” he is heard saying on a tape in the beginning of Shirkers. Tan recalls, “He was my best friend, but there was always something about him that I didn't trust..If he wasn’t that way, I think I wouldn't have been interested in him being my best friend.” During the Easter holiday of Tan’s first year at the University of Canterbury in England, Cardona invited her and Ng on a road trip across the US. Only Tan went. “There was a part of me that thought, ‘There's a chance this guy is a serial killer,’ and I didn't tell anyone about this trip,” she said. “But I wanted to know what it was like to be out in the world and live and have something to tell. I thought if he didn't kill me, I would have something to write about.”

If you could revisit your teenage self, in all the magic and stupidity, would you? Tan does it brilliantly, in a way that’s sometimes hard to watch. “Did you ever read the script?” she asks an influential Singaporean film critic to whom she gave the script before she began her original feature. “Did you think it was childish?” “Yeah,” he answers. “But that was the beauty of it, you know that. You know that,” he repeats after Tan says nothing, as if to reassure them both. Elsewhere, when they run out of money two weeks before the end of filming, Cardona drives Harvey and Tan from ATM to ATM as they gradually withdraw $10,000—the combined total of each of their savings.

“To tell the story, I had to get back into the headspace of being that restless, manic person,” says Tan. “I completely forgot how crazy I was. I hardly slept, writing huge journal entries and letters every night, filled with movie ideas and book ideas and observations about the world. You feel everything really raw, like it was yesterday. But I don’t think I was unwise then,” she adds. “So it’s not a story about being older and wiser.”

In the few glimpses we get of Cardona, he appears to be a bit of a cipher: it’s hard to place his age, his sexual orientation (in the film, his widow explains that he faked his birthday to appear to be younger as well as a different star sign: Leo, instead of Cancer). According to Tan, he loved The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, a road novel that follows its protagonist from New Orleans (Cardona’s hometown) to Chicago, then to the Gulf Coast. Allegedly, in an attempt to get closer to Percy, he began dating the writer’s niece. He’d tell his friends and students that he inspired the character of James Spader in Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape, and recount to Tan witnessing Jayne Mansfield’s decapitated head roll over to his car after her fatal accident.

“Georges was a classic American character,” says Tan, “born somewhere else, a self-inventor. Kind of Gatsby-esque. I find that hugely fascinating as a character portrait.” (A shared interest in singularity, maybe: “If Americans think they are exceptional,” Tan narrates in Shirkers, “let me tell you, Singaporeans know we are.”)

“I saw him as one of us,” says Tan. “He was basically a teenage girl in a grown man’s body.” There’s certainly something teenager-like in the way Cardona pieced together his identity from cultural snapshots. But what he lacked, crucially, was the unspoiled, infectious energy to be a catalyst in creating a project as naive and ambitious as Shirkers the feature. Shirkers the documentary offers up a general explanation for why Cardona did what he did: he was jealous of his budding disciples and enjoyed being, in a twisted way, in control. In Vogue, Julia Felsenthal suggests that Cardona makes a fitting conclusion to the summer of the grifter. But the mark of a grifter is to make something out of nothing—Cardona arguably did the opposite. “A lot of people think he’s like a mythological character,” says Tan. “[In Shirkers], I say that he’s like a vampire, sucking things away from people—your youth, basically. My friends and I, none of us have really grown up, none of us have children. It’s a really strange thing that we’re all suspended in our teenage selves, on some level.”

Tan doesn’t like to speculate about what would have happened had Shirkers been released when it was supposed to. It’s true that the clips of it that appear in the documentary are eerily similar, in their storytelling and color washing, to the wave of indie movies that defined the ’90s, like Wes Anderson’s Rushmore and Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World. The documentary, with its surreal, zine-like quality, certainly plays into the current trend of ’90s revival. (Lucas Celler, who edited Shirkers, was an uncredited writer on Spring Breakers. Tan describes him as “a skate punk and self-taught, like me,” and the pair worked together to ensure they got the tone right.) But while Tan is now focusing on other film projects full time, Shirkers the feature remains a one-off, a ghostly presence among its would-be peers.

“I really don’t know what the reception would have been if we’d come up with this experimental, slightly weird film,” says Tan. “I would like to think that the film festival crowd would have found it an interesting entry, but I'm not sure about Singapore in general. But maybe that's just something I tell myself,” she adds, “because the alternative is kind of unbearable.”