Movie Review – Shirkers
Sandi Tan has made an autobiographical sketch of her life focusing on the loss of the first film she ever made. She wrote a screenplay, got her friends to help produce it and had her teacher direct it. Unfortunately, that teacher kept the film and never gave it back. He essentially stole it. What we get about Tan is that she’s a quirky, punk-rock, European-influenced artist, but what the movie becomes is a bit of a character study of what’s revealed to be a somewhat disturbed man.
This documentary never really engages with the questions it raises, particularly about artist’s rights and ownership issues surrounding films. Tan’s expressions make it clear that she believes the film was hers. She wrote it and starred in it, but her teacher named Georges Cardona was the director, and film is generally considered to be a director’s medium. The director is often referred to as the auteur of a film, so maybe that’s what Cardona thought. Cardona did like the French New Wave, including directors like Jean-Luc Godard.
Tan shows how much she loves films and how much films have been a part of her life by integrating clips into this documentary. One such example is Breathless (1960) by Godard. Would Tan argue that Godard doesn’t own that film and has the right to do with it whatever he chooses? Godard wrote Breathless, but even if one takes a director who doesn’t write his or her own films like Alfred Hitchcock or Steven Spielberg, what then? Does Hitchcock not take ownership of any of his films?
There are arguments that some films belong to the screenwriter and the director is just a hired gun. In general, most involved think of film making as a team sport or group effort where no one takes all the credit. Yet, most directors like Hitchcock and Spielberg do get all the credit. No screenwriter would ever take ownership over Hitchcock or Spielberg. There are strong and even celebrity screenwriters like Aaron Sorkin and Charlie Kaufman, but even they would yield to the directors of their projects.
The only exception is the actor. More often than directors, actors are more associated with films. A Tom Cruise film is a Tom Cruise film despite who the filmmaker is, especially if he’s playing the protagonist. The same could be said of stars like Paul Newman or Daniel Day-Lewis. Tan is the main actress in her movie, so she can take that position and claim ownership that way.
The issue is that Tan never actually claims ownership or at least she never tries to make a concerted effort to do so. Tan was living in the United Kingdom. She came to Singapore, her birthplace, to make the movie. When it was over, she returned to England and left all the film footage with Cardona. She then simply waited, never hearing a word from him. When it became clear that Cardona was not going to finish or release the film, Tan did nothing. She never tried to find him, confront him and demand the footage back. She did nothing but let it go.
The documentary spends an inordinate amount of time trying to analyze Cardona, who is now dead. She tracks his movements. She talks to people who knew him, including his widow, in an attempt to understand what Cardona did or establish a behavioral pattern of him, sabotaging or stealing the art of others, but Tan never admits her own culpability in the loss of her film. She let it go. She literally walked away from it, but this documentary is designed to frame her as a victim. There is a great moment where Tan interviews her friend, Jasmine Ng and Ng pushes back against her, but that’s it.
Twenty-five years after the fact, Tan is able to edit her footage. She uses it as a basis of memory. What we get is essentially a DVD commentary like feeling as she plays the footage and talks about the making of that footage. It’s simply tragic that it’s DVD commentary for a film for which we’ll never hear the original audio.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 37 mins.
Available on Netflix.