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Netflix Documentary Revisits Decades-Old Mystery Between Filmmaker And Mentor


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Sandi Tan says she knew it looked strange to outsiders when she was 18 and spending most of her time with a man more than twice her age. That man was her mentor, Georges Cardona. This story doesn't go in the direction you might think. He did not sexually assault her, but after she put her faith in him, he did steal her dream - literally stole it.

Tan's dream was to become a filmmaker, to make the kind of edgy films that she loved, the kind of films that weren't shown in Singapore where she's from because of government censorship. When she met Cardona, who was teaching a film workshop in Singapore, he became her friend and mentor. She describes him as a man of unplaceable age and origin who projected himself as an American filmmaker. He encouraged her to write a screenplay. When she completed her screenplay, which she called "Shirkers," he declared it a masterpiece. He knew how to get film and equipment, and he became the film's director. She played the leading role. One of her girlfriends served as producer, another as assistant director.

After they finished shooting, Georges had the footage. He disappeared and took the footage with him. Gone was the film, her dream, even her sense of identity. Making another film seemed out of reach. Instead, at the age of 22, Tan became a film critic for Singapore's largest newspaper and continued to write screenplays that never got made. She moved to America, kept writing about film, married film critic John Powers, who you may know as FRESH AIR's former film critic and current critic at large. And she wrote a novel.

In 2011, nearly 20 years after shooting her film "Shirkers," she got one of the biggest surprises of her life. Georges had died. His widow found 70 cans of footage labeled "Shirkers" and it was in perfect shape. She sent it to Tan. You can see some of that footage and how remarkable it looks because it's incorporated in Tan's new documentary. It's about her teenage years in Singapore, making "Shirkers," dealing with Georges' betrayal and unraveling the mystery of who Georges really was.

The new documentary has the same title as the original unfinished film, "Shirkers." She says, some call my film a punk rock fairytale. Some call it a ghost story. But all I'll say is, time can be a very strange friend. Sandi Tan won the World Cinema directing award at Sundance. "Shirkers" is now streaming on Netflix.

Sandi Tan, welcome to FRESH AIR. So when you made "Shirkers" in - when you were 19 and living in Singapore, it sounds like there was a pretty strict censorship code for pop culture, and a lot of the movies that you wanted to see weren't legal there. You had no access to them. So as a film lover turned filmmaker, what kind of system did you create in order to see the films that you wanted to see?

SANDI TAN: I developed this, I guess, clandestine video network with my cousin in Florida who had no interest in movies but happened to have access to VCRs. And I taught her how to kind of hook them together and go to Blockbuster and rent some movies and - you know, rent the movies that I've read about that I wanted to see that the grown-ups around me probably would be worried that I was trying to see.

And I had her rent these movies and send them to me in Singapore. I became, like, this kind of strange video clerk of illegal movies in my high school and just infected the rest of the girls around me in my all-girls high school, and we got into movies that way - films like "Blue Velvet" and the Coen Brothers' "Blood Simple" - all these movies I've read about that couldn't be seen.

GROSS: So you were a film lover who basically started, like, an underground network for importing films that you wanted to see that weren't available in Singapore. When you were 18, in the year between high school and college, you met Georges, who you...

TAN: Yes, I did.

GROSS: ...Who you did not realize was a pathological liar. And he was teaching a film workshop. And he loved talking about movies, and you became - he became like a mentor to you. What did it mean to you to have somebody who was American - at least he said he was American - who knew so much about film? What did it mean to have a man like that in your life, an adult like that in your life?

TAN: You know, the grown-ups around me - this is the context of 19 - late 1980s, early 1990s Singapore. You know, they're completely conservative. The grown-ups around you are only concerned with making money, with scolding their children for not doing better at school. It was a very scoldy (ph) culture and Georges was the opposite of a scoldy grown-up. I went to a high school where we had this kind of specialized theater studies and drama program. This was the first of its kind in Singapore where the rules didn't quite apply. So that was the beginning of us being open to grown-ups who were not, like, the Singapore norm.

So when I met Georges - this was a man who actually knew movies and took me seriously as being, potentially, a filmmaker and a thinker and a creative person. And that was extremely intellectually seductive and also, like, that's why he became a mentor and then a close friend. And, you know, people always say now, like, the optics weren't right. But Georges was not somebody we were frightened of or thought of as other in that way. He was, in fact, the opposite. He was very much one of us. I felt like he was - I mean, it's strange to say, but I felt like he was like a teenage girl in disguise in his - you know, he just talked to me like an equal.

And he certainly knew how to talk to me and my friends, 18-year-old girls, so it just never was weird in the usual way. And he happened to be a grown-up, which was hugely useful because he could drive, he could do certain things - get us cameras without people looking askance at us and, you know, borrowing a camera and people trust him with it. And we would go around shooting video. We would not have been able to do the things that we wanted to do had there not been a Georges.

GROSS: You went on a road trip with Georges...

TAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Through parts of America, starting in New Orleans, where he had lived before going to Singapore. And you write, even back then, I knew how it looked - on the road with a married man more than twice my age, and I knew he had a wife and child.

And in your director's statement, you wrote, (reading) so what if Georges was 40 and, like, driving around late at night with us teenage girls? He was one of us, spiritually. Besides, we were only talking about movies - always movies. Georges and I sat in his Nissan on my driveway for hours, night after night. As they say now, the optics weren't great, but so what? People around me were limited. They watched terrible movies and thought in tawdry cliches. I pitied them.


GROSS: I think that's really funny. Did you ever think that there was a sexual subtext for him? You do write that he gave you strange signals and one night invited you to touch his belly and that you ignored him, and then you both pretended it never happened.

TAN: Yeah. You know, the...

GROSS: What did you make of that? How did you interpret it?

TAN: Yeah. I was actually really freaked out 'cause I did not interpret that as being necessarily sexual at the time, you know, 'cause in my mind was so - put him in a different category, and he wasn't pushing it. I mean, he wasn't creepy in that way. I don't know what that was. I mean, one can read into that, but I don't know. I cannot begin to speculate.

GROSS: So you and Georges decided to make a movie together, and you were going to write it. You did write it. He directed it. Your friend Jasmine was an associate producer and editor of the film.

TAN: My friend Jasmine was - she was supposed to edit the film, and she was an assistant director of the film - the original film.

GROSS: OK. There were...

TAN: She's associate producer of this one.

GROSS: Right. And another friend of yours was a producer of the original film - Sophie.

TAN: Yes.

GROSS: So describe the screenplay a little bit, just - not the whole plot, but just, like, you know - if you were pitching it, how would you describe it?

TAN: It's a road movie in the smallest country in the world. And I played S, the lead character in this. She's the 16-year-old - I guess she's - the road movie is an excuse for her to go around auditioning five people that she likes enough to take into the next world with her by killing them - I mean, a very metaphorical killing - with her handgun...

GROSS: Handgun meaning her hand.

TAN: Her hand being kind of used as an imaginary gun. And it's kind of left ambiguous. But basically, it was an excuse for me to collect together, you know, in a feature film all the kind of places that I knew were disappearing that we could shoot at and all these characters and faces of people that were maybe part of my life, like my grandmother who was getting on and my baby cousin who was an exceptionally adorable little kid.

And I just wanted to catch all these people and all these places before they vanished. So "Shirkers" was kind of an excuse for this caravan of disappearing faces and places back in 1992 when Singapore was really clearly at a crossroads where it was going to transform itself from a more laid-back, greener, you know, Southeast Asian city to something that had, like, huge global ambitions and was going to be filled with skyscrapers.

GROSS: There are remarkable colors in your movie. Like, in the original movie that you made that you incorporate into your documentary about the making of the movie, the colors are amazing. Like, there's a scene in a bowling alley, and usually, bowling balls are kind of black or speckled. And these are, like, pink and orange bowling balls. Like, did you color them, or were they really that way?

TAN: They were that way, but we spent a lot of effort on production design of making sure that the colors popped. It was so important to us because we were working on 16 mm. We got the film donated by Kodak. So it was cheap, but it was precious. And we just wanted these colors to pop. And Georges was very mindful of color. He was very inspired by the work of Robby Muller on Wim Wenders' "Paris, Texas," which is a classic road movie. And I was coming from the direction of Tim Burton movies and "Heathers" and the use of primary colors in those films, those American independent films, to kind of pop and help the lack of money.

I think when you - when you don't have that much money for your production design, then you can add a lot of production value simply through, you know, a very strong use of color, say, and thinking about really framing your images in that interesting way. And also, I was very inspired by Douglas Sirk movies and his use of color. We aspired to something better than the usual, say, independent films that were being made in that part of the world, which is not many at all.

GROSS: So Georges was a con man - and we'll talk about some of the other bad things that he did - but do you also think he was really a talented and dedicated filmmaker?

TAN: Yes. I think he's extremely talented as a storyteller and extremely talented as a photographer and cinematographer. He happened to have a very good eye, so he could have been a very talented filmmaker except he had never actually completed anything in his life, as far as we know, that was a film. So this was going to be the closest thing to him completing a film, and he suddenly was a great consumer of movies. He was a - you know, I think of him as a kind of a vampire of cinema, where he - I wouldn't call him so much a con man.

I don't know. I think he's much more complicated than that. I think of him as, strangely enough, a kind of a very classic American archetype, a self-made man by turning himself into sort of his ideal fictional character. He's a storyteller of his own life where his personality is made up as a composite of all his favorite movie characters. They aren't necessarily heroic movie characters. I mean, I'm talking about the lead character in Eric Rohmer's "Claire's Knee" in which this kind of 40-something-year-old man played by Jean-Claude Brialy has the ambition of touching this 16-year-old girl's knee - and only touching it, nothing weirder than that. But that's very weird in itself. And that was one of Georges' heroes.

GROSS: So after the film was shot, you left for England for college, leaving Georges in Singapore to process the 70 cans of film. And you realize that none of you had seen a single frame that you'd shot. And then you waited and waited for word from Georges about how the film looked. And then you didn't - outside of a couple of oblique messages, you never heard from him again. So the film was basically stolen from you, and it wasn't until many years that you got it back.

How did you feel? How did you deal with it emotionally when you realized you weren't going to get the film - that this film that you poured your heart into, that you'd poured your dreams into - that it was literally stolen from you by your own director and friend?

TAN: It was a lot of anger and frustration at first before the disbelief set it. It was a lot of shame also. I felt like I had let myself be fooled or, you know, the people around me would be, I told you so; there was something creepy about that guy. You know, like, I just didn't want to hear that. And so for a long time, it was me keeping it a secret and not sharing this shame and this heartbreak. I mean, actually not sharing the heartbreak was probably the most devastating thing, that I had no one to tell except for Sophie and Jasmine, who were angry at me because they felt it was partially my fault.

But we all, the three of us, shared the burden of this heartbreak, which then became this kind of toxic force and we just couldn't even talk about, even though it was the one thing that linked the three of us. It was a lot of anger. It was a lot of frustration because also, it - the break did not come cleanly. You know, it wasn't like he just vanished and then the three of us were there to experience it, the whole thing, together.

GROSS: You kept - he led you to believe, just keep waiting.

TAN: Exactly.

GROSS: So you were in this...

TAN: He's going to send you something. He's going to send you something.

GROSS: Yes. So you...

TAN: And it was on and on.

GROSS: ...Were in this state of, like, suspension for a really long time, you know, expecting...

TAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Something to come. But it never did. And you say in the movie, we were no longer magical kids whom were making a movie. We were just kids.

TAN: Yeah.

GROSS: It must have, like, really changed your identity, both your self-identity and the identity you showed to the world, when you could no longer be the person who made that film because that film didn't exist.

TAN: Yep. And so now it was back to just my representation of my outside self, which was just a boring, bland, expressionless teenager, whereas, you know, if I had "Shirkers" to show, which was going to be an expression or rather an explosion of my inner self. I no longer had that to share with the world, and nobody would sort of understand and see the real me.

GROSS: My guest is Sandi Tan. Her new documentary, "Shirkers," is streaming on Netflix. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sandi Tan. Her new Netflix documentary, "Shirkers," is about the fiction film she made when she was 19 that she was never able to complete because her mentor Georges Cardona, who was directing the film, stole the footage and disappeared. Twenty years later, Tan received dramatic news. Georges had died. His widow found the footage.

You ended up getting the canisters of film, after Georges died, sent to you by his widow. And you didn't look at the film for three years. Why did you wait that long? You wanted it so badly for so long, and then you got it. And you just kind of kept it in, I don't know, a room or a closet.

TAN: Yeah. They came to me in seven boxes. There were 70 cans in all. And they were, to me, radioactive, these boxes. And I stacked them in the corner of my living room just, you know, out of the way so I didn't have to think about them. And you know, when - the boxes came to me over a series of maybe seven months, so they weren't all there at once. And so I kind of stacked them up, one by one. And eventually, they became this kind of tall stack of brown boxes - like some vertical coffin, I often say - just standing there. And this was in my living room for three years.

And finally, my husband said, we have to do something about this. You know, deal with it. I just knew that if I had opened them up and looked in them, they would suck me into some kind of crazy vortex of obsession, you know, and perhaps financial ruin and psychological damage and heartbreak again. You know, what if the footage was no good? Also it meant I had to get in touch with Sophie and Jasmine again and in touch with all these people again and to relive the heartbreak of everything again. Even though I wanted to kind of solve the mystery, as it were, the prospect of having my soul torn apart again was harrowing. I mean, I just - it was something I wanted to delay.

GROSS: Eventually you opened the boxes, and you watched the film. What was your reaction when you saw it, when you saw the footage that you had shot?

TAN: I was relieved. I was sitting with a technician in Burbank who had worked on some of the Criterion Blu-rays for Douglas Sirk movies. So he's very used to, you know, vivid colors and palettes of that sort of thing - lots of pinks and oranges and - vivid '50s palette. And his jaw dropped when he looked at the footage. And he had - he just thought it was amazing, mesmerizing footage. And I was extremely relieved that I was not exaggerating, that I wasn't insane. I had not misremembered. And I was relieved that I now had proof.

You know, I had to cast vanity aside and just not think about the horrible performance I was giving or how kind of chubby I looked or, you know - and just think about, like, the performances that all these other people were doing - like, all these grown-ups that we managed to convince to be part of the production and who could have had, like, you know futures as actresses - or the production designers. Like, my friends were getting our props together.

And Sophie, the producer, you know, getting these buses off the streets of Singapore and just hijacking them and using them in our film. And there was so much work and so much passion that something in me just kind of went on fire again. And I was just burning with a need to just kind of tell our story for all of us and not just me. It's no longer just about me.

GROSS: So once you decided to make the documentary about "Shirkers" and finally, after all those years, you had the footage, and you could watch it and you - obviously you really wanted to and needed to hold on to it, were you paranoid about all the things that could go wrong? That it could it could burn in a fire, the lab could lose it, it could get lost in the mail? I mean, there's just, like, an endless list of things that could go wrong.

TAN: Yeah, I completely was. Once we got it digitized, I think once the film began living its own, you know, life in a different form and could be contained in bytes and bits and on different hard drives and I - OK, so this is how paranoid I was. I had the footage transferred onto, like, maybe 10 different hard drives.

GROSS: (Laughter).

TAN: And put in 10 different places in - not just in my house, but in my friends' houses and in LA - but also sent to New York to my producer Jess Levin's house. So we had it scattered around the world so that they - it wouldn't all exist in one place and potentially could just vanish into a black hole again.

GROSS: Is the documentary, which is being so well received, opening doors for you to make other movies?

TAN: I hope so. I definitely hope so. I mean, I think one of the things that was so satisfying and - you know, in terms of closure for me in making this film - is that it completely rekindled my passion for filmmaking or, rather, my confidence in myself as a storyteller.

GROSS: Well, Sandi, I wish you great success with "Shirkers," your new documentary. And I really do hope that opens the doors to making other movies because I like "Shirkers" so much. So congratulations on that. And thank you so much for talking with us.

TAN: Thank you so much. This was a pleasure.

GROSS: Sandi Tan directed the new film "Shirkers," which is now streaming on Netflix. After we take a short break, we'll hear from Steven Yeun who played Glenn on "The Walking Dead" and stars in the new film "Burning." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


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