How a "Shape-Shifter" Director Hijacked a Teen Film for More Than 20 Years

Courtesy of Netflix
Sandi Tan (right) starred in the film she made as a teen.

Sandi Tan reflects on 'Shirkers,' the project that was stolen from her two decades ago, and how she reclaimed it in her documentary of the same name.

In 1992, Sandi Tan was a zine-publishing punk teen living on the buttoned-up island of Singapore when she and her best friends — Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique — shot one of the nation's first indie features, Shirkers, about a teenage assassin named S. (played by Tan). The trio conscripted their charismatic film teacher, Georges Cardona, to direct, and after shooting wrapped they left the cans of 16mm film with him and returned to their colleges abroad. That was the last any of them would see of him or the film for over two decades.

Cardona became a ghost, leaving no clues on the island or even the internet, as to his whereabouts. Tan and her friends had long since resigned themselves to the fact that they would likely never see their work again, when in 2011 she received a message from Cardona's wife saying Georges had died, and that he had kept — in pristine condition — the film they'd shot all those years ago (he'd destroyed the audio tracks, however). Tan, by then an L.A.-based author, took that long-lost footage and — interspersing it with a prolific archive of art and photos from the time period, and interviews with Ng, Siddique and others involved in the production — created a new Shirkers, a documentary portrait of the Singaporean summer shoot, and the thief who tormented her.

Tan sat down with THR to talk about the pain of having one's work stolen, and how Cardona became her "Moriarty."

What was the film landscape, or lack thereof, like in Singapore when you decided to make Shirkers?

We actually benefited from the fact that there was no industry, there was no criticism. People were very open. They might [have been] laughing that these crazy kids were trying to make a movie. But no one was gonna be overly negative or suspicious because nothing had been done like this before.

When you decided to make the film, and Georges offered to direct, was there any investigation on the part of the three of you into his abilities?

I thought that Georges was our best hope, because he was a grown-up. If you're going to go to Kodak and have them give you free stuff, or film equipment places, you just need someone who's responsible — and male — and, you know, maybe bonkers! And he was also sympatico with me in terms of what we wanted to do. Me, Sophie, Jasmine and Georges, no matter our disagreements on various things, we were on the ship together, and we were gonna harpoon this whale!

During filming, you talk about inklings of, like, something's not right here. There was the day where you and Georges go out and build that apparatus to make the little boy fly, and after a whole day of shooting you saw that there was no film in the camera …

I'm not entirely sure what to make of it except I think Georges saw the whole thing as this entirely fun adventure, and he just didn't want the fun to end. And he also hated that kid so I think he wanted to scare the kid a little bit. (Laughs.) There was a bit of sadism there. This was like the final day and you're just so beaten down, you don't know if it's a mistake. I mean, there's no way it could have been a mistake. He was manning the camera, he would know if there was nothing in there. (Long pause.) So it was just part and parcel of the way Georges operated. There would be strange quirks and you just accepted it.

So you wrap shooting and take off back to New York and leave the film with Georges. And as time goes on and he's not corresponding, what were you feeling?

It was a lot of exasperation and exhaustion and anger. And when this goes on for a year and you're no longer talking to your friends because they think it's your fault for trusting Georges, we're no longer a united front chasing down this demon. So after a while you learn to let go of it. You don't give up hope, but you give up wanting to bang your head against a wall. He was like Moriarty. He was taunting us all the time, sending us messages, "I'm gonna send something soon," and then nothing comes.

So in this 20-year gap between your last correspondence from Georges and the email from his widow, it does become easier to find people.

Of course I did look for Georges over the years when the internet came into being, but there was nothing there but the Missing Person [website mentioned in the doc]. There's a lot of victim-blaming going on sometimes when I talk to people and they say, "You didn't try hard enough." He was not gonna give up! Even if we'd found him and set him in a room he would be smiling and laughing in your face. He's a shape-shifter. You will never get what you want from him.

What do you think was behind his gamesmanship? Like he kept all that film pristine for decades, but he threw out the audio.

He just never wanted for people to have whole things. He's got a history of stealing people's audio from their films. So I say that very confidently, that he wouldn't have wanted us to complete it. George liked to leave holes in people's lives. For a man who couldn't create, being remembered with loss was the way he could make himself matter.

A version of this story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.