Shirkers is the story of a film that got stolen. Sandi Tan was a 19-year-old who, with two friends and teacher/mentor Georges Cardona, shot the footage for a feature-length movie. The three young women went off to college, leaving the film for Cardona to edit. They never saw him again, and the footage seemed to be lost. Many years later, Cardona's widow contacted Tan, telling her she had found the footage, which Cardona had kept all those years. There was no audio.
Tan does a great job of integrating that footage into a making-of documentary. It gives Tan a chance to regain what was once hers; it's also crippled by the lack of sound. The original Shirkers is lost to the world, but with the perspective that distance provides and the technical skills Tan had picked up over time, she gives us a new feature that is probably better than what she made as a teenager. There is a sense of loss, of course, but in the end, we can only guess at the quality of the original. There is no guess work involved with the documentary, which is intriguing and shines light on the precarious nature of the art we make.
Cardona seems to sneakily become the film's focus, which would be his final triumph if that's what he wanted (he is ultimately a cipher), but eventually it turns back to Tan and her friends, as it should. While Tan includes interviews with critics who make extravagant claims for the lost film, it feels hyperbolic. And unnecessary, since the film she eventually makes stands on its own. And if the original was charmingly amateurish, the grown-up Tan is an accomplished film maker (for one thing, she hides that fact that the footage is silent for most of the film, and I never suspected a thing ... maybe if I watched it a second time I'd see the signs).
(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)