In 1992, Singaporean filmmaker Sandi Tan directed her first film with her mentor Georges Cardona. Suddenly, Cardona disappeared, taking Tan’s prized work with him. Her film reappeared 20 years later, inspiring her to create the new Netflix documentary “Shirkers,” which recounts Cardona’s whereabouts for the last 20 years.
The most outstanding aspect of “Shirkers” is Ishai Adar’s background score. The music is dark and suspenseful, elevating the sense of mystery throughout the film. This was further heightened in the film’s smart structure: it’s composed in a puzzle-like format that recounts Cardona’s life through interviews with people who had encountered him in their lives.
Although the documentary is inspired by Cardona’s disappearance and theft of Tan’s film, it refrains from bias. Instead, Tan listens to the different perspectives shared by those interviewed. To some, he was an outgoing man; to others, he was selfish and bitter. Tan did not limit her subjects — she deliberately found as many people as she could to unfold Cardona’s life in its full truth.
“Shirkers” is as personal for Tan as it is a mystery about Cardona. She focuses on the growth she experienced in the last 20 years after losing her passion project. She explains the hurt and anger she initially felt at Cardona but delineates how she managed to move on. Her journey symbolizes that even when you feel like you’ve lost everything, life still carries on.
Interviews with her long-time friends who had helped her create “Shirkers” 20 years ago are frank in sharing how Tan hax grown in some aspects but remained stagnant in other ways. Allowing her audience to see her imperfections, Tan facilitates a sense of authenticity that can often be lost in documentaries.
Tan is unafraid to show clips from the making of the original “Shirkers.” Her love for filmmaking shone through her serious and goal-oriented self on set. More than happiness, however, the viewer encounters sadness and nostalgia. Tan had spent months working with a cast and crew, only for her film to be stolen out from under her. Recounting this experience summons Tan’s frustration as she explains all the strenuous work that had gone down the drain.
“Shirkers” is more than a mystery documentary. It is an impressive, in-depth emotional journey of a person having lost something extremely dear to them. Tan is brave for showing the audience clips of her original film and speaking of how the event shaped her. In “Shirkers,” the audience watches Tan discover more about not only Cardona’s life, but also her own.
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