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Netflix’s Shirkers is a punk feminist documentary gem

The “original” Shirkers was Singapore’s first indie film. In the new Netflix doc, Sandi Tan reclaims its history — and her own.

Sandi Tan’s Shirkers is now on Netflix.
Sandi Tan’s Shirkers is now on Netflix.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every week, new original films debut on Netflix and other streaming services, often to much less fanfare than their big-screen counterparts. With Cinemastream, Vox will highlight the best and/or most notable of these premieres, in an ongoing effort to keep interesting and easily accessible new films on your radar.


The premise: As a teenager in 1992, Sandi Tan and two of her friends made Singapore’s first indie movie, a scripted film called Shirkers — and then their American mentor absconded with the footage. Decades later, Tan set out to figure out what happened.

What it’s about: Shirkers is a documentary, a personal exploration by director Sandi Tan into what exactly happened with the footage from the original Shirkers as well as George Cardona, the mysterious American man twice her age who mentored Tan and her friends Jasmine and Sophie, shot the movie with them, and then disappeared with the footage in tow. Tan, who wrote the screenplay for the original Shirkers and starred in it, was left adrift, angry and confused. But she eventually became a film critic and, in a “backwards” move, later enrolled in film school at Columbia.

Then, 20 years after the original film wrapped, 16mm film canisters containing the film were found in New Orleans, and Sandi got a call.

Using a variety of media — including 16mm, animation, handwritten letters, tapes, digital, Hi8, and Super8 — Tan reconstructs the making of Shirkers and its aftermathc working through the story, sussing out what exactly had happened and how it affected the path that she and her friends took in their lives.

It’s a mesmerizing, fascinating story that also feels like an attempt, on Tan’s part, to reclaim the film from Cardona, putting it back in the hands of its rightful owners: herself and her friends. In that way, the new Shirkers is a kind of punk feminist project — a deeply personal, fabulously engrossing, visually assured bit of first-person creative nonfiction filmmaking.

Critical consensus: Shirkers currently has a score of 88 on Metacritic. At The A.V. Club, Vikram Murthi writes, “With Shirkers, Tan doesn’t indulge in nostalgia, but rather evokes an un-calculated, offbeat sensibility that feels distant from our current algorithmic-driven culture.”

Where to watch: Shirkers premiered on Netflix on October 26.

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