Swampflix is a money-losing labor of love. Everyone who contributes to this blog is a non-professional, untrained cinephile who just happens to have enough passionate opinions about movies to need the creative outlet. If our collective had formed a couple decades earlier, Swampflix almost certainly would have been a zine instead of a blog – an assumed truth I try my best to reflect in the site’s general DIY aesthetic & our participation in zine culture events like NOCAZ & The American Library Association Zine Pavilion. The 2018 documentary Shirkers is as accurate of a summation of that same zine culture aesthetic as any I’ve seen, both in its subject and in its editing methods. Novelist Sandi Tan begins the film recalling her teenage days as a pop culture gatekeeping zinester in early-90s Singapore. She translates the photocopier collages of her early zine collaborations with friends into a vibrant, volatile cinematic expression that affords the doc a distinct, yet familiar visual language. It’s a visual ethos that perfectly matches the subject it serves, as Shirkers is about the ultimate DIY art project time-suck, the most tragic of youthful collaborations lost to dissociation with the means of production. It’s the cinematic equivalent of working on a zine with your friends all summer only for the pages to blow away in a single gust of wind on your way to the photocopier, never to be recovered. It’s a pain in artistic loss that hit home for me in ways I did not expect, as I identified with its teen-girls-in-Singapore subject far more closely than I could have assumed I would, since we’re all DIY zine-makers at heart.
In the summer of 1992, Tan and her fellow brat-punk friends set out to make Singapore’s first entry in the era’s indie cinema boom – an aesthetic typified by then up-and-comers like Tarantino, Soderbergh, and Jarmusch. A DIY art project that translated their zinester tastemaker sensibilities to highly stylized, low-budget cinema, the original form of Shirkers was meant to defy Singapore’s cultural conservatism with some good ole 1990s who-cares slackerism. It was a 16mm “road trip movie in a country you can drive across in 40 minutes,” a film more concerned about documenting counterculture personality & local atmosphere than telling a coherent story. With the help of a shady older man “of unplaceable age & origin,” the young women miraculously completed principle photography on the shoot, having all the raw materials necessary to complete a feature film. Then the creep who “helped” them disappeared with the footage, with no one else who had worked on the film having seen a single frame. Tan eventually recovered the footage form Shirkers nearly 20 years later from the creep’s widow, finding its intensely vibrant colors & richly textured filmstock pristinely preserved by the conman who ruined her teenage dreams. Instead of attempting to reconstruct her original vision for the film (which would prove impossible, given its still-missing soundtrack), she instead uses the opportunity to explore who she was and why she was ripped off at such a pivotal rime in her life. The documentary version of Shirkers finds Tan both reopening old wounds in interviews with her closest zinester-days collaborators and investigating the mysterious identity & motivations of the man who derailed their dream project.
Shirkers figuratively hit close to home with me in its profile of DIY art project tragedy, but it also literally, geographically hit close to home with me in the trajectory of its narrative. It’s shocking how much of this story about a conflict that begins in Singapore finds its way to Mid-City New Orleans, as Tan investigates the mysterious backstory of her arch-enemy, Georges Cardona. She discovers that Cardona had a history of sabotaging microbudget art projects wherever he went, including an obscure 80s New Orleans slasher titled The Last Slumber Party. He was far more concerned with making legend than making art, claiming bizarre self-mythology (like being the source of inspiration for James Spaeder’s character in Sex, Lies, and Videotape) that’s just as unflattering as it is untrue. Outside considering the inappropriate nature of her youthful friendship with the much older Cardona, Tan’s investigation of his deceitful legacy mostly leads to fruitless dead ends. The true revelations she discovers in the doc are much more personal and, thus, more painful. When reflecting on her history as a culture-gatekeeping zinester and her over-ambitious willingness to risk her collaborators’ time & energy on a shady creep’s honor, Tan has a hard-look-in-the-mirror epiphany: she’s an asshole. Regardless of Cardona’s baffling behavior, the way she socially bullies her friends in her attempts to establish an artistic Personal Brand, both as a teen and as an adult, makes her out to be the true villain of this doomed DIY collaboration. The gorgeous footage that survived from Shirkers suggests that this assholery can lead to wonderful artistic results, but her headstrong stubbornness also leads directly to Cardona’s sabotage of the project – leaving her collective essentially empty-handed for their efforts. There’s a fascinating tension in that self-defeating dynamic that drives Shirkers’s thematic core.
You don’t have to be a DIY zinester with moviemaking dreams to appreciate Shirkers as an artistic, historical object; you don’t have to be a Singapore or New Orleans local either. It helps, but you don’t have to. Between the what-the-fuckery of Cardona’s mysterious backstory, the vibrant imagery of the recorded footage, and the preposterous circumstances of its inciting incidents, Shirkers has plenty to offer audiences as almost a true crime-level twisted story. I was just pleasantly surprised to personally connect with the film as a self-portrait of a socially tactless, self-sabotaging DIY artist. Tan got to me through the merits of her brutal self-honesty. More superficially, she also got to me through the aesthetics of her DIY zine culture ethos & her story’s exponentially rapid trajectory to my front doorstep.