The #MeToo movement has uncovered grotesque instances of powerful men abusing women. Sandi Tan’s autobiographical documentary “Shirkers” is about a patriarchal predator who doesn’t violate his victims’ bodies, but exploits their talent, imagination, and creativity.
“Shirkers” is also the name of a feature that Tan tried to make in 1992, when she was 18. Though never finished, it is legendary in her native Singapore.
Tan and her collaborators, Jasmine Ng and Sophia Siddique, were teenage rebels enamored of the blues and “Blue Velvet” and other outré art not much appreciated and hard to obtain in their conservative but economically thriving island nation. When they met Georges Cardona, a charismatic, self-described cinema savant of mysterious origins who shared their tastes and obsessions, they found their guru.
With the exuberance of gifted youth, they set off to make their own film, a road movie about an 18-year-old serial killer (played by Tan) who crosses Singapore — a 40-minute drive — in her whimsical, ruthless rampage. Tan wrote the screenplay, her friends did the grunt work, and Cardona directed.
After a grueling production (more than a hundred scenes were shot), during which Cardona seemed oddly obstructionist if not downright disruptive, the shooting was done. The three friends went their separate ways, and Cardona remained behind in Singapore with 70 cans of 16mm film to edit.
And that, except for some enigmatic and unsettling phone messages, letters, e-mails, and a box of videotapes of static, was the last they heard of the film or Cardona.
More than 25 years later, Tan, now a successful novelist living in Los Angeles, decided to make a film about the missing film. The result is somewhat of a road movie itself, but more of a detective story. In it, Tan interviews her two friends — both successful in their own careers — who share their own recollections (Ng uses an expletive to describe Tan’s sometimes overbearing personality). She interweaves fragments of the lost film, which shows youthful exuberance and flashes of genius. Its images of four children in identical smiling masks, a chain-smoking nurse with a giant wolf hound and a feral child, and others testify to its free-wheeling inventiveness and surreality.
She tracks down others victimized by Cardona, including Cambridge author Grace Dane Mazur, a friend of his in the 1980s who realized after a while that she was serving his dreams rather than pursuing her own projects. (“How did I become an intern?” she now wonders.) Then Cardona’s wife contacts her, offering clues about his background and motives, and in an eerie sequence Tan searches for Cardona’s mother in a dank, desolate suburb of New Orleans.
Does she ever find the film? Or does it matter? It could not have been better than the film she has made about the film, which shows that the bold creativity and insouciant ingenuity of her 18-year-old self remains unspoiled — and refined by experience. Cardona betrayed her trust and stole her movie, but ultimately gave her the opportunity to create anew.
“Shirkers” screens on Sunday at 6 p.m. at the Wasserman Cinematheque in the Sachar International Center at Brandeis Unversity and on Monday at 7 p.m. as part of the DocYard series at the Brattle Theatre. The director will participate in a Q &A session at both screenings. It will also screen on Sept. 28 at 6 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts as part of the Boston Women’s Film Festival.
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