Some stories take over a quarter century to tell. Sandi Tan was 19 when she decided to make her first feature film in Singapore in 1992, and it haunted her for the rest of her life. Along with friends Sophia Siddique Harvey and Jasmine Kin Kia Ng, as well as her mentor, Georges Cardona, Tan spent a summer writing, filming, and acting in Shirkers, an indie road-movie about a young girl played by Tan herself. Then, Cardona disappeared with all of the footage.
He had taken it under the pretense of editing it, but the footage was only returned to Tan — without sound — four years after Cardona's death in 2007. Shirkers, now the name of the documentary on Netflix, tells the story of the summer they shot the film and Tan's quest to piece the memories back together to reclaim the narrative that was stolen.
Refinery29 spoke to Tan about what it was like to dive back into the brain of her teenage self, how she feels now about the friends who stuck by her side, and whether or not Cardona is the villain he appears to be.
Refinery29: What was the thing that surprised you most about looking back at the footage?
Sandi Tan: "Everything. I completely forgot what it was like to be my 18-year-old self. It was like rediscovering your secret superhero identity and discovering that your 18-year-old self was that secret superhero identity. I’d forgotten I was that person.
"Diving into my archives and reading my letters and looking at pictures and my drawings and colleges, I was so feverishly active inside my head, and I was so restless, and so curious, and so hungry to consume and create. Rediscovering that part of me was actually a huge part of making this film because I had to recreate that part of me before I could tell the story, because I had to recreate what it was like to be that 18-year-old girl who is full of ideas before I could take people along on this journey. I think everybody’s been 18 once and everybody has had that superhero identity and this is kind of a reminder, for me to everybody else, to not forget that part of you."
I think everybody’s been 18 once and everybody has had that superhero identity and this is kind of a reminder, for me to everybody else, to not forget that part of you.
Did you save all that stuff with this purpose in mind?
"Yeah, I did. When you have this black hole in your life, something huge that was taken away, you tend to want to save everything else. So I kept every scrap, like George. He was also a hoarder but I was, too. In the context of growing up in Singapore where everything was shifting and changing before your eyes and buildings would be torn down every day, you just wanted to keep stuff, just remember stuff, I guess. But also I knew at the time that this kind of level of energy could not continue where I was sending ideas and writing scripts and writing stories and drawings, that that could not continue, that someday I would grow up and become a different person and I knew that I had to remind myself of this person by keeping it in a time capsule form."
How is your relationship with the two other women you worked on the film with now?
"I think I caught in the film exactly how we interact. It was very important to me that we capture that nature of female friendship which is so common in life but you never see. It’s like lightning in a bottle — it’s really hard to capture this kind of relationship because it’s longtime friends who are speaking very frankly to each other, continuing a conversation as if you never stopped talking. Even though I had not talked to Sophie in fifteen years. The three of us had never been in the same room together in 20 years. Making this film was kind of an excuse for me to say hi to them. It’s bringing up a sore point, too. The three of us are kind of bound forever by this dark thing. It’s happy, it’s sad. We have very different reactions. Jasmine’s completely angry, Sophie’s sadder, she’s always laughing and crying at the same time."
I have to give a lot of credit to my DP Iris Ng, who also shot Stories We Tell, and she’s this really tiny Chinese comedian woman with a poker face and she handles a large camera, so she kind of hides behind this camera and has a stone face and she vanished, basically. So Sophie, Jasmine, and I, we talked as if she wasn’t there, and therefore there was a lot of truth that could be caught."
What are your feelings towards Georges now?
"I don’t villainize him. A lot of people ask me about that. Why aren’t I angrier? I don’t think of him as a villain. I think of him as a very strange friend and think of him as my nemesis. I think it’s stronger to think of him that way, rather than to let him win and be a villain...making this film is itself an act of triumph over life, over all the funny things that happen in life.
"When I was younger I did have the anger and the frustration for many years, but I think as an older person and being more understanding — there’s some parts of his psychopathy I still do not understand. I would never do the kinds of things he did, but I’m now his age when he was working on Shirkers with us and I understand the anxieties of somebody who might be growing older but doesn’t quite feel it. There’s a lot of things that you come to understand and be more sympathetic on a human level, for even a person that may not necessarily deserve much sympathy."
If a young girl wants to make her own movie, what advice would you give?
"Be brave. Be brave and take risks. Grow a very thick hide because it’s going to be very difficult and most people are going to say no. Don’t give up. Just don’t go running to your parents all the time. I think people do that far too much now. I think one thing that we did in the early ‘90s and stuff is that we didn’t have adult supervision as much as people do now. I think that’s something that’s slightly less good for being creative. I think people are a little bit too careful. But I’m not advocating danger!
"I also think that people should be patient. That’s an attribute that most people don’t think about: patience. Especially in young people and women it’s very crucial because often people give up. You just have to be patient because things need time. There’s a time for everything. For example, making the first Shirkers I was probably an early bloomer and now I’m probably a late bloomer. There is a perfect time for everything. You never know when things are going to happen."
Editor's note: This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Shirkers is available on Netflix now.