The Danger of What-If’s in ‘Shirkers’

“In all golden afternoons there are movers, there are shakers, and then, there are shirkers.”

What-if’s are dangerous. As a perfectionist with a dangerous level of anxiety, I know the world of what-if’s all too well. They are poisonous and there is never just one, as each one leads to the next until you obsess over every angle of what could have been, but never was.

For Sandi Tan and her friends, Shirkers is their what-if. Made in 1992 under the mentorship of the enigmatically American Georges Caldona, they created Singapore’s first Road movie: something that, during the documentary, is made to seem almost impossible. Yet it wasn’t. Tan and her friends poured their everything into Shirkers, evident through the sense of loss they feel when the footage is taken from them; stolen by their mentor, Georges Caldona.

Almost twenty years after the film’s production, Tan is reunited with the footage after Caldona’s death. With only the visuals left to play with, Tan creates a new life for Shirkers (1992) within Shirkers (2018): a documentary that provides her teenage efforts a home and an exploration of the what-if’s that have dangerously plagued her and her friends throughout the years.

Shirkers feels almost therapeutic for Tan, who directs and narrates the documentary. She tells the story of Shirkers through her own words: how Shirkers came to be, how she was manipulated by her mentor, and how she coerced her friends into being involved. She haunts us with questions of possible futures and what could have been if only she had done something differently and spurred on a different set of events that meant she could keep Shirkers for herself. Yet, unfortunately for us and for Tan, she hadn’t, and only now – over twenty years later – could she see the true nature of Caldona for herself.

What is most striking about this documentary is that although it is personal and introspective, Shirkers is selfish. Much like the circumstances of the original film’s production, Shirkers seems largely for the benefit of Tan (and Caldona to a lesser extent) rather than her colleagues. Childhood friend and producer of Shirkers Jasmine Ng reminds Tan of this during their interview: “Just as much as you have the capacity to be wonderful you have as much capacity of being an asshole,” as Tan defends the actions of her younger self. Even twenty years on, Ng still seems frustrated with Tan and Caldona’s past ignorance, as she asks Tan: “How can we continue with this when I was pointing all these things out?” when looking at her past production notes from the film. She highlights how it was truly Tan and Caldona who pushed for Shirkers, and how the relationships within the films’ production still hang a grey cloud over Shirkers for her. Though, after an almost therapeutic (yet seemingly repeated) conversation, Ng pulls a face at the camera. Over the course of the documentary’s production, Tan seems to realise that she was an asshole, and this face lightens the mood slightly – to make the blow a little less harsh. Yet it seems like a blow decades in the making.

What is most poetic about Shirkers, however, is how it became ultimately devoured by its own meaning. Tan tells us in the opening sequence that Shirkers’ title derived from the meaning of the word: “A word which means ‘running away, avoiding responsibility, escape’.”This seems particularly apt for the events that follow (particularly with Caldona running away with the footage), and how Tan and her friends were left to pick up the pieces with a million what-if’s to cloud their entire lifetimes.

Ultimately, Shirkers is a representation of what could have been. Shirkers will never be seen in the same form that it was intended, and there will always be parts of it that Tan will never be able to replicate again in the same way (i.e. the sound files). With this being said, Shirkers takes the danger of the what-if and breathes new life into the film in a manner that Tan never expected to do all those years ago. Like many others, I am gutted that I will never be able to experience Shirkers in its true form; it is a work of cinematic history that is unfortunately lost to the plagues of time. However, Shirkers will always live on as a what could have been and I, along with many others, will relish in the life we have been given with Shirkers, rather than dwell on the what-if.