Last August, I flew from Singapore to America to start college in a new country. 

During the first week of college, I watched Shirkers, a 2018 documentary film by Singaporean filmmaker Sandi Tan. I never expected a Singaporean film to be assigned for my documentary filmmaking freshman seminar, so of course I was prepared to love it—and I did, but I didn’t expect it to connect to me so uncannily. 

Shirkers is about Sandi’s reflection on creating an “atmospheric” thriller movie in Singapore one summer in the 1990s when she was nineteen. Upon the completion of shooting, all the footage disappeared with her film mentor, only to be rediscovered decades later when he died. In the film, she examines what it meant to create a movie as a stubborn idealistic teenager, the struggles of the process, and the emotional havoc upon its disappearance, trying to figure out: what happened? It’s part detective story, part nostalgia, part attempt at meaning-making.

There are many elements to the film, but the one that struck me most intensely was what my class readings called “self-reflexive,” Sandi’s “thoughts, doubts and self-examination while filming” (Rabiger, 2014). Shirkers is an exercise in memory: an excavation of both the film and what it meant, the process of the filmmaking, and a reflection on the filmmaker herself.

It’s a film not just in that moment (gorgeous pastel-hued shots of Singapore’s streets in the 1990s) but of a moment—being nineteen and making a movie. 

When I was nineteen, after the end of Junior College (Singapore’s equivalent of high school), I made a short film. Ostensibly for a short film competition centered around the theme of mental health, the real reason I wanted to make something was a burning desire to concretize those blurred days. It was supposed to capture this strange in-between state of life and be a time capsule of a country that changed so fast I feared that, when I returned, I would come back to an unfamiliar land. 

“It’s more than a physical time capsule. It’s not just scenery and disappearing buildings, but it’s also people in those places.” (A line from Jasmine, Sandi’s best friend in Shirkers)

In my foolishness, I decided that it was entirely feasible to make a film despite extremely limited experience. I borrowed all my equipment (including the camera), enlisted vaguely skeptical but very supportive friends, and used my tiny network to find my two lead actresses. Frenzied morning writings materialized as four days of shooting, which would become a month of editing, and a fifteen minute film. I carried my friend’s giant tripod through the oppressive humidity of Singapore, reshooting each time we got interrupted by an enthusiastic crow or an inconsiderate bus.

For the last scene, I picked the reservoir near my home. That narrow band of land circling the man-made lake held years of angst-fuelled runs, pensive rainy walks with friends, and family picnics at dusk. The first time we shot there, the SD card malfunctioned and all my footage was lost. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. This time, the sky behind the actresses melted into a stunning sunset, golden rays melting into pink and fading into a blue-orange hue. When we wrapped up filming, I took a final video: the five of us holding hands as we ran down the slope, as if we were running into eternity.

In the end, I didn’t win the competition; I had just narrowly missed getting shortlisted. Evidently, it wasn’t phenomenal work. But it was mine, and my team’s.

There were many parallels in the process of making Shirkers and of making my own film: creating a film at nineteen, a summer, a group of friends who were slightly skeptical perhaps, but helped anyway, capturing a time capsule of Singapore. Lots of differences too: Shirkers was a movie, it could have revolutionized Singaporean film, it disappeared before it was complete. Mine was complete, but it might simply disappear. 

It was deeply personal in the same way that Sandi’s Shirkers was to her, not necessarily because of the plot or the story, but the person we were when we made it. The fierce ambition, drive and utterly ludicrous hope—for what can I call it but the thing called hope?—that we could pull this thing off. She reflects on a self from decades ago. I reflect on the self from this past summer, but already this “me” is a foreign being. I look at her and wonder: Who is that bold person? 

Because the other thing that unites us is failure. Hers’ is far more “real”, the complete loss of all her footage and with it her efforts and hope; mine, its fate of not being screened and fading into oblivion. But they both fall short of that hope for film: to be seen.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever do something like that again; if I’ll have the time, energy, friends, and most importantly, the audacity to jump into a far-fetched project.

But Shirkers has reminded me of dreams. Sandi remembers that naive nineteen-year-old she was, realizes that what drove the project might be naivety, but also a dream. Doing something, although it’s crazy, although it’s absurd, although it might not lead to anything, because we want to and because we dare to. Dreaming is: dripping with sweat while helping tourists in Chinatown take pictures because they see you filming something; waiting for the clouds to pass overhead in the Botanical Gardens; cursing at the fifth bus that interrupts an emotional scene. Dreaming is also: creating a film that will forever hold a part of my life. 

I want to be that version of nineteen-year-old me, who did something simply because she could. 

Because isn’t that what this film is really about? Shirkers is about memory, remembering the self we were and the self we wanted to be. It’s not about nostalgia; it’s about remembering something for long enough that it becomes part of our narrative of our past self. It’s about recognizing that who we were is who we can be. 

“I had the idea that you found freedom by building worlds inside your head. That you had to go backwards in order to go forwards.” (Sandi Tan, Shirkers)

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