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True/False Conversations - Revisiting Youth in 'Shirkers'

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This story is part of True/False Conversations, a series of in-depth interviews with the filmmakers of this year's True/False Film Fest.

In the summer of 1992, Sandi Tan and two of her best friends set out to make Singapore’s first independent film. Just teenagers at the time, they were helped by their enigmatic American mentor, Georges. The film was Shirkers, a story about a teenage killer named S, who goes on the search for five people she likes enough to kill.

After a summer of shooting, Georges disappeared with all the footage, devastating Tan and her friends. 20 years later, the film is rediscovered in near-perfect condition. In this film, also called Shirkers, Tan travels from Singapore to California to New Orleans to retrace what happened and revisit her youth.

Schroeder: How do you view the experience of making Shirkers differently now than when you originally made the film 25 years ago?

Tan: I think I'm a lot less angry now. I think the process of going through 25 years and then, you know, just the process of making the film was kind of therapeutic in a way. I have a much better sense of humor about the whole thing. Probably because, you know, we got the negatives back, and it was kind of a happy story. Our lives weren't completely destroyed by this mess. Things moved in a more interesting angle, I think — in a different direction than it might have gone, say, if the film had been made, and our lives would have been different, and everyone was involved in it might have chosen different paths in the last 25 years. But, because there was no great tragedy involved, I see it as a great story. It's like one of the crazy, stranger-than-fiction tales, and it's a strange gift, because now I have this story to tell.

Schroeder: So you called this film Shirkers, which is what the original film your made as a teenage was called. Do you see this film as kind of taking the place of the original Shirkers, or like offering some sort of closure to the whole thing?

Tan: Exactly. It is. It's almost like a meta version of the little film we made. I should, you know, briefly describe that. That was a crazy road movie with me playing S, this teenage killer, who is going to find five people that she likes enough to kill, in order to take them to some crazy world with her, and it was, I mean it's not dark though. It's surreal, it's meant to be kind of a dream, um, dream film. It didn't really make much sense as a real road movie, and in this version of Shirkers I'm also, I'm in it, I'm kind of like finding all these people, my friends and enemies who had been involved in this film when I was a teenager and finding them around the world again and putting them together to bring them back to life in a strange way. For this version of Shirkers, as it's growing up, 25 years later, around the world, rather than just around Singapore.

Schroeder: So what do you hope the audience takes away from this film?

Tan: I just want them to know that you can just go out and do this. We did this and that's why we’re, you know, just follow your dreams, no matter how crazy they sound and artistic dreams, just go do it. Even if you're kids in this place where nobody's making films and you don't have anything, and there's no support system. We found a way to do it because we just wanted to get this done, and we just, we just really went for it.