There’s a certain tall-tale quality to Sandi Tan’s life. When the California-based filmmaker was growing up in Singapore in the 1980s and ’90s, movies were a powerful way of experiencing the world beyond her small native country, a place she continues to find stiflingly conformist. A fan of Jim Jarmusch, the Coen brothers, and the French New Wave, she discovered in cinema a countercultural voice that resonated with her inner rebel, inspiring her to find ways of creating something of her own. That spark of youthful cinephilia led her down a number of winding paths, which she revisits in her acclaimed feature debut, Shirkers. Shortlisted for the best documentary Oscar this year, the film recounts how, as an irrepressibly ambitious teenager, Tan embarked on her first directorial project, a collaboration with a group of like-minded misfit friends and a mysterious American grown-up named Georges Cardona, who ultimately ran away with all of the footage. After Cardona’s death eleven years ago, Tan located the kidnapped reels and started to build a movie around excerpts of this audacious, genuinely eccentric lost work, whose disappearance left a hole in the lives of the young artists who worked on it.
“It was insane!” she repeatedly exclaimed during our recent conversation at the Criterion offices. A natural storyteller with a gift for conveying the uncanniness of a narrative twist, Tan told me about how she’s managed to remain a spectral figure on the margins of the film world: after Cardona stole her footage, she landed a gig as a movie critic for the Singapore newspaper the Straits Times, and over the years she’s directed a few short films. But the success of Shirkers has given her a chance to finally come into the spotlight. We talked about her memories of Singapore’s burgeoning cinephile culture and what movie love has given her through the years.
Your film is such a wonderfully strange ode to cinephilia, one that’s rooted so specifically in the perspective of someone who grew up in Singapore in the 1990s. What opportunities did you have to discover classic and art-house cinema when you were a kid?
I come from a family full of movie fanatics. Singapore, even now, has the highest per capita rate of moviegoing in the world. Back then there was nothing to do but go to movies, and my father’s family would go a few times a week—they’d just shove the whole family in the car and go. They had Cantonese nicknames for all the Hollywood stars, like Tim Gaa-ze (sweet older sister). My mother’s family named all the kids after movie people—one was named after Alec Guinness, because of Kind Hearts and Coronets, and my mom was named Alice, after Alice Faye. So mainstream classic movies were always around in the house; that was very normal for me. What wasn’t so normal were art-house and foreign cinema. The first film like that that I vividly remember making me feel different and weird was The Tenant, which I watched with my mom on TV when I was eight.
I also loved soundtracks. Back in those days, everything was pirated, and I’d buy these soundtracks and listen to them obsessively, even for movies that I hadn’t seen. And then there was reading about movies, which became a gateway drug—first Tiger Beat, and then Us magazine, which was a little step above. And then I segued into American Film, just because it happened to have some movie star on the cover, and Film Comment. It’s not because I was an intelligent film appreciator at the time but because on the cover there was Harrison Ford in The Mosquito Coast! Or River Phoenix!
So when did you start getting into movies that were a little more off the beaten path?
My uncle was a botanist and a movie nut. Every weekend he’d go to the video store, which was full of these pirated tapes, and we’d rent six or seven of them. My uncle’s taste was extremely wide, and we’d go from really shlocky horror to art-house. There was one video store in town that had all the Artificial Eye VHS tapes, but they were all censored. Not a single thing wasn’t censored! Say there was a sex scene with Gérard Depardieu—it would just be [makes a buzzing sound]! And then written on the flap of the video case would be a list of all the excised bits. Every tape was individually censored.
There was also a film society in Singapore, and I’d just go there and terrorize the guy who ran it. I used to write him really annoying letters when I was fourteen or so—“Will you show Eraserhead?” or “will you show River’s Edge?” I saw him again recently because they hosted the Singapore premiere of Shirkers. It was funny to see him after all these years. When I was young, I couldn’t afford to pay, so I would bug him and sneak in and jump on the seats—I was so boisterous, a complete horror. He’s this mild-mannered guy, and I just learned that at the time he was only twenty-one, but he was the president of the film society! To me, he was like an old man.
The film feels so much like a generational portrait because of its specific range of references. It shows how much American independent cinema of that era influenced young movie lovers at the time.
Those movies were so colorful and liberating. When you watch the Coen brothers or Jim Jarmusch, it’s not realism or the Hollywood version of things. It’s something new—smaller scale, but inventive. I felt like that was something within my reach. I might not be as good as that, but suddenly it gave me a sense of what I could do in my own world. I loved the playfulness and the mischief and the tonal shifts.
You really capture the anarchic energy of youth and how cinema becomes a way to dream yourself into adulthood, or dream yourself out of whatever corner of the world you live in. Can you talk about that link between youth and creativity?
My high school was interesting because it was a pilot program for drama kids. That was the first generation of Singaporeans who got to study arts. Everybody who’s doing anything interesting artistically in Singapore comes from that program. I miss those kids; they were some of the most interesting people I ever met. We were kind of untouchable because we were part of developing this program and the principal couldn’t let it fall apart, so none of us could be expelled even though some of us did horrible things—sleeping on the roof of the school, stealing library books . . . Yet we were still straight-A students! All of that is a movie in itself. It was like Rushmore. There was one girl who taught herself German, and one summer she read The Magic Mountain in German. I mean, that was my group of friends!
I love how you take that kind of precociousness for granted rather than making a spectacle out of it. People forget how normal it is for kids to be that creative. There’s this permeability between youth and adulthood in the film.
Yes. When we met Georges it wasn’t the usual story of this weird foreigner who comes along and stumbles into some innocent girls. We were equals; he didn’t intimidate us. Now that I’m about as old as Georges was, I understand what it feels like to be his age and not feel your age. I understand the impulse of being attracted to energy, to intensity. The thing is, we shot the first draft of the script—we probably shouldn’t have—but when I looked at the script again, there was something fresh in it. I was always throwing it aside and saying it’s bullshit, but seeing it again I realized there’s something unfiltered in it, and that’s probably what he saw too. There was a Peter Pan aspect to him, which I can honestly say did not seem sinister. It’s just the clichés of today that make it seem so.
I knew that we were using him. Kodak wasn’t going to give us free stuff, so we needed that man, this grown-up, to be the face of it. It was mutual exploitation. Maybe it makes it a less sexy story when you put it that way, but life is messy. I think a lot of women can identify with me on this—the man who does something to you is not always just a villain, and you’re not just this pure, innocent lamb.
Even after that disappointing experience of having your work stolen, you still found ways of being a part of film culture. One of the things you did shortly after was write movie reviews for your local paper. Tell me about that experience.
I made them send me to Cannes in 1996 because I wanted to go and meet my heroes. It was insane! I was twenty-two. I’d made this short film called Moveable Feast, and I met Pierre Rissient, who saw it at the festival in Singapore. And Pierre told me I must come to Cannes, which was about a month away, and he’d fix the paperwork. Of course there was nowhere to stay, so Philip Cheah [the director of the Singapore International Film Festival] and I ended up an hour’s walk away, up a hill, in an old folks’ home. We walked an hour every morning down to the Croisette. I wanted to see all these movies before other people told me what to think about them. And I would have to phone in my reports to the Straits Times. I went three years for them, and I would do stuff like go cover a Con Air roundtable and then go stalk the Coen brothers! I was so innocent back then.