by Molly Bagnall
Shirkers (directed by Sandi Tan)
When you’re young and full of ideas and dreams, it feels like nothing can stop you from realizing them. This is where Shirkers begins. The film centers around the story of director Sandi Tan and her friends as they make a feature film called 'Shirkers' in Singapore, 1992. The movie's script was written by Tan, produced by her friend Sophie, and set managed by her best friend Jasmine. The three young women enlisted the help of their mentor to direct the film, Georges Cardona. The movie (spoilers ahead) soon transforms from an inspirational making-of into the tale of three young female artists tormented by an unstable and abusive male "auteur" who disappears with all seventy canisters of the film's footage without a trace. We discover as the film goes on that, not only has Georges stolen film from 'Shirkers', but has also thrown out the footage of other proteges' projects he’s worked on, "lost" scripts that were handed to him for editing, and disappeared from collaborations altogether.
Fortunately, there’s (some kind of) a happy ending. After Cardona’s death, his widow discovers all the footage, intact and perfectly preserved, and gives it to Sandi Tan. But, Cardona threw out the sound recordings, rendering the production of the film as it was originally conceived impossible. Tan took this as an opportunity to make this new film with some of the original footage, completely different from the one that she originally wrote. One that speaks to memories, ghosts, and the manipulation of budding young women artists by older male “auteurs.” Though not the original surrealist road film of the original 'Shirkers', this documentary evokes a time when you would (and could) sacrifice everything to get your art made. When there was nothing standing between you and your final project besides the flow of ideas and resources. The documentary chronicles the journey one woman takes from hopeful artist desperately trying to earn the approval of her teacher, to a grown woman, disillusioned with the idea of making art and thoroughly screwed over by that same teacher.
The film struggles with finding a specific form and sticking to it for its 96-minute runtime. Opening with a negative reversed image of a swan floating across water along with a thoughtful voiceover on the transportive power of memory, I was prepared to see an avant-garde film. However, the film quickly moves into a much more conventional documentary with interviews of the subjects the story revolves around, but it also uses several elements of the essay film. All three styles come together rather well considering how different they are from each other, but the film could have benefited from a commitment to one style.
Shirkers uses a combination of footage from the first 'Shirkers', shot in 16mm, and footage Tan shot recently in digital. The sound of the film also alternates, between contemplative voiceovers and standard exposition. The incorporation of the 16mm is skillfully done, usually coinciding with Tan's personal reflections on the past, so the original film is presented to the audience the same way it exists for Tan and her friends—a foggy memory that persists only as a ghost.
In many ways, the film is a coming of age story. There's a loss of innocence in Sandi, Sophie, and Jasmine as the project they put so much love and work into is ripped out of their hands by an insecure and manipulative man who, presumably, couldn’t handle the idea of these women being more successful than he was. At the Q+A after the film, Tan shared that she had not been in the same room with Sophie and Jasmine in years, a fact that seems impossible after seeing the closeness of their relationship in the film. The theme of the film in this respect is something like this: “Memories fade into ghosts that reside in the cracks of your mind, haunting you. And with these ghostly memories, people live too.”
Self-Portrait: Birth at 47 KM (directed by Zhang Mengqi)
I woke up early on Sunday morning to see this film. I was number 16 in the queue. I got into the screening. 25 people walked out during the film. And my life was changed in those two hours. I rarely see films so sincere in their filmmaking, so purposeful in conveying a message. Self-Portrait: Birth at 47 KM follows two Chinese women, both unnamed. One cripplingly old, the other no older than 24. They're united by one village in rural China and the experience of motherhood after the men who fathered their children have largely abandoned them. There's no more to the story than that. There is no grand plot to follow or mystery to uncover in the film beyond the portrait of these two women, living their lives and talking about it (a little).
The older woman’s story is defined by loneliness, struggle, pain, hunger, and a sense of hopelessness. We see her climb up the sides of mountains, back curved with age, hauling corn and sticks in heavy baskets, while her voice tells us the horrors she’s endured—giving birth to eight children alone in the woods, surviving the Great Chinese Famine, seeing her children die from malnutrition or suicide. The younger woman’s life is much brighter. At her age, the elder woman was facing her greatest struggles. The young woman plays with her two young children in the sun, scrolls through her phone, and dances with her relatives in the grass. The difference between these two women couldn't be more pronounced, and perhaps that's where Zhang’s social statement lies. The old woman became an adult during the Great Famine caused by disastrous policies set forth by Mao Zedong (which are largely willfully forgotten or ignored, not just in China, but the rest of the world as well) while the young woman has the privilege of doing so in a relatively more prosperous time (though it should be noted that the younger woman still lives in somewhat poor conditions, without indoor plumbing, electric heat, or other amenities).
Zhang’s focus on two women was carefully planned, she revealed in the Q+A. The film was produced during a series of trips to the village over many years. Each time they asked villagers what life was like now and what it was like in the time of Chairman Mao. Zhang said she noticed that, at first, the men had a lot to say. They would talk and talk about their experiences, but as time went on, the men quieted down and the voices of the women, who kept on speaking, came to the fore. This is clear in the film—the women have a lot to say and their stories continue. As the old woman climbs up the side of the mountain, she walks steadily, painfully slow, and the audience is with her the whole time. Women’s stories are often erased from history completely, but Zhang’s film firmly re-centers them and their voices in this historical narrative.
Self-Portrait is an exercise in intense calm, in becoming at peace with what's happening on screen. The slow, deliberate pace of the film uses long takes of static landscape in order to fully immerse the viewer in the environment of these women. In a rare comic scene, a flock of chickens, one by one, make the leap from roof to tree at sunset to roost for the night. The film continually savors moments like these, though often more serious, of small things that happen every day in this village, giving it a character of its own.
The director Q+A after the screening was one of the most enjoyable and enlightening parts of the whole festival. Zhang had five volunteers (from the rather thin group of people that stayed for the whole movie) come to the front of the theatre. After constructing her group, me included, she instructed us to form a pod and play a game she called ‘School of Fish’ where the whole group must follow the actions of the person in front. Anything was allowed, as long as you could do it with your body. People yelled and spun and ran to the back of the theatre and pleasantly invaded other people’s personal space for the sake of the game. It created the strongest sense of community I’ve ever felt in a movie theatre. After the game ended, Zhang explained that the point of this game, which we see her play with the documentary subjects in her film, is to interact with her subjects in a way that she fully understands. Often times, she explained, she feels her documentary subjects are influenced by her more than she is by them. She was trained as a dancer and so she understands relationships and movement through her body. This game of mimicry is the best way she can express the ideas of influence, power, and change that she sees in her work. As a trained dancer myself, I found a lot of truth in her words and that part of me was affirmed by this unique expression of the body. I left the screening inspired and elated, immediately telling fellow festival goers about it. I look forward to exploring Zhang's ideas in my own life, coming to understand my own body and its relationship to the world in a deeper, more meaningful way. I'm so grateful I skipped my scheduled Sunday morning screening to see her film, I feel truly changed because of it.