An Archive of Shirkers (2018): Collaging Different Theories of the Archive

Still from Shirkers (Tan, 2018, courtesy Netflix)
David Chan brings several theories of the archive to bear on the recent documentary Shirkers, asking how the film's openness as a text and mission of collecting a lost film relate to the specificities of place and embodied difference that gave rise to the project.
[Ed. note: this post is part of our Student Voices section. In this issue all posts in the section come from papers given at the 2019 SCMS-U Conference. For more background on these posts and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

Shirkers (Sandi Tan, 2018) is a documentary that is blatant about its use of an archive, unleashing a whole collection of archival documents in order to weave together narratives of loss, of personal desires, of gendered power relations, and of post/colonial history. Tan is a Chinese Singaporean, born in Singapore right at the start of the industrial boom, and she established herself as a film critic, writer, and filmmaker. In Shirkers, Tan recounts the story about the loss and recovery of Shirkers, the 1992 unmade Singaporean independent film that Tan wrote and starred in as the lead character. Briefly, the 1992 Shirkers follows a cryptic character named S, who goes on a road trip collecting children to take into an unknown afterlife. It is a surrealist road film directed by Georges Cardona, an American living in Singapore. After production wrapped, Cardona disappeared with all of the footage. Twenty years later, after Cardona’s death, the footage is returned to Tan with all of the original sound discarded. What follows is the production of the 2018 documentary, where Tan constructs a quasi-detective film in order to recollect the events that led up to the theft and to reexamine her personal desires as well as possible motivations that Cardona may have had for stealing the film reels.

In looking through reviews of the 2018 Shirkers, I was particularly interested in the contrast between articles that spoke about the documentary as a story of reclamation and closure vs. articles that highlighted the haunted-ness of the documentary’s narrative. For example, in an article written for Roger, Castillo writes, “There is a sense of relief at the end of the documentary that feels like the first big breath of fresh air … Cardona may have taken something from them they will never fully get back, but Tan’s documentary returns the narrative back to her and her friends.” Conversely, in an article written for Vulture, Yoshida writes, “Even in its most joyous moments, there’s a melancholy to Shirkers that catches in the back of one’s throat: It sends you wondering at all the wild creativity and genius of young irrepressible women lost to time, held up or buried by the domineering egos of men.” I question whether there can be closure, in the sense of finding a resolution to a traumatic event, when there is also an aspect of haunted-ness. A haunting is a repressed social violence that is making itself known. As Yoshida mentions in her article, the 2018 Shirkers is steeped in melancholy, persisting even till the end of the documentary when there is a supposed sense of closure. Freud famously said that mourning is the letting go of the loss, while melancholy is the internalization of the loss into the ego1Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia” Collected Papers, 4, (1917): 155. In my reading of Shirkers, melancholy and haunting remains by the end of the documentary, so there is no closure in the traditional sense of having a beginning to a story and having an end. If Shirkers provides no closure, then what is the documentary doing instead?

I open with the example of Shirkers in order to turn to the questions of what is an archive, how does the archive function within a film, and how has cinema studies taken up the concept of the archive? There have been many discussions across academic disciplines about the nature and function of the archive, being termed the “archival turn” in the humanities and social sciences. Manoff writes: “There is a growing self-consciousness about the fact that all scholarship is implicitly a negotiation with, an interpretation of, and a contribution to the archive. Some scholars have argued that the archive functions for the humanities and social science disciplines as the laboratory functions for the sciences. Both the archive and the laboratory are sites of knowledge production.”2Marlene Manoff, “Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines” The Johns Hopkins University Press, 4, no. 1 (2004): 13.

Manoff identifies the centrality of the archive in scholarly production and offers a reading of why so many scholars have taken up the archive in their respective research. Yet, Manoff also notes that many scholars have “wrestled with the meaning of the word ‘archive’”3Ibid,9. It is common to read, within the introduction of a scholarly book, about an author’s archive. This archive would be a collection of ideas, texts, and materials that the author would use to forward a particular theorization. An archive can also be a physical space that houses documents and materials that are labeled as “archival.” My use of the word “archive” will be in its broadest definition to mean both as a space and as a collection because of the theoretical texts that I focus this paper on. My reading of the archive does not rest on a singular definition, but rather calls for an interdisciplinary lens. In order to begin thinking about what Shirkers is doing as a cultural text, it is important to begin by addressing these questions of the nature and function of the archive, since the archive is a significant component of the documentary. To put it another way, the 2018 Shirkers could not have existed without the found footage of the 1992 Shirkers as well as Tan’s personal archive of zines, photographs, home videos, and production documents. Therefore, my research on both the 2018 Shirkers and the archive complement each other. By critiquing Shirkers, I could forward my own argument about what the archive is and what it does and vice versa.

My argument for this paper is twofold: first, I argue that Shirkers is not so much a documentary about recuperating a lost history of the past, but rather a documentary that utilizes an archive and the concept of the archive to make us question how we remember events and to restructure our conceptions of time and history. Second, my reading of Shirkers will divulge into a broader discussion about how theories of the archive intersect with the film object. I ask, why might film be an interesting place to talk about the archive and consider how Shirkers takes up that question. Film, because it is an audiovisual medium, can help us perceive things that we otherwise would not have been able to think about. Therefore, film makes the archive visible and shows us how the definition and function of an archive constantly change. My argument demands multiple takes on the archive. I rely on the works of Catherine Russell, Lisa Lowe, and Ann Cvetkovich to make my case about why cinema studies should take up the concept of the archive. Fundamentally, my reading of the archive of Shirkers draws from the cultural studies of cinema, Marxist literary criticism, postcolonial studies, and feminist and queer studies. I show how the archive promotes interdisciplinarity within cinema studies and how certain theorizations of the archive, mainly theories that critique the archive in relation to power, deconstruct our notions of time and history. With the example of Shirkers, the archive is deployed within the documentary in a way that scrambles the linearity of how we traditionally think about time and history. Instead, Shirkers demonstrates that the past, present, and future all collapse onto one another. The archive is used to go back into the past to think about the present moment in order to conceive of a better future. In essence, the past, present, and future are tied together and the archive makes this relationship apparent.

The paper will be organized as follows: first, I will discuss my own archive that I bring to  bear on the text of Shirkers. The documentary’s complexity, its disavowal of the gendered and postcolonial realities in its own narrative, calls for different approaches to the concept of the archive. My individual discussions of the works of Catherine Russell, Lisa Lowe, and Ann Cvetkovich will show how each theorist adopts a certain terminology around the term “archive,” in order to legitimate their respective objects of study and to draw out disciplinary boundaries of the archive. Reading these theorists together will show generative possibilities of using an interdisciplinary approach to the archive. Second, I will focus my analysis of Shirkers on the motif of silence and on Walter Benjamin’s dialectical image. My analysis will show how the 1992 Shirkers is awakened from the archive and what that awakening means for possibilities of rethinking our dominant conceptions of time and history. Lastly, I conclude by returning to the question of why film might be an interesting place to discuss the archive and how the archive opens cinema studies up to engage with interdisciplinarity.

An Archive on the Uses of the Archive

In Archiveology: Walter Benjamin and Archival Film Practices (2018), Catherine Russell attempts to make ideas of the archive visible when she talks about how fragments of filmed history are constantly being reassembled into found-footage or compilation films. Russell calls the practice of reusing, remixing, and collaging found footage as “archiveology.” Following the cultural theories of Walter Benjamin, Russell’s engagement with the theories of the archive reconfigures what she calls an “image bank,” a repository housing “unresolved histories and modernities.”4Catherine Russel, Archiveology: Walter Benjamin and Archival Film Practices (Durham: Duke University Press, (2018): 15.When film fragments are decontextualized from their origins and reassembled into an archivally-based film, they direct us to a reconstructed past from which we gain new insights. In keeping with Benjamin, new modes of thinking about the past are also “about futures that did not happen, or previous futures we may still encounter” (25). These film fragments are essentially awakened in their reuse. Russell argues that: “Benjamin’s notion of an afterlife of cultural artifacts ruptures the linearity of teleological history and nostalgia. The dialectics of now and then are integral to archiveology, giving rise to works that are frequently infinitely incomplete, and always in flux, according to the historical conditions of reception.”5Ibid,15. In other words, archiveology brings images of the past back into the present, and the dialectical relationship between past and present within an image gives that image new meaning. Because we project our contemporary concerns onto the archive, we begin to see history differently than before, which is why there is an aspect of being “infinitely incomplete,” since historical conditions change over time and place.

Archiveology further blurs the past and present, rupturing the linearity of time and history. As I will discuss later, historical narratives are dominantly discussed in terms of progress and development, following Enlightenment thinking. Russell proposes that archiveology is a new language of the audiovisual archive because the viewer is still able to understand the image in its decontextualized form, but I also understand archiveology as proposing a new language to discuss history. Images have an excess of meaning that are not always graspable all at once, so there is always a potential for “new ways of accessing and framing histories that might otherwise have been forgotten and neglected”6Ibid,11-12. I take Russell’s engagement with the archive as a fundamental basis for understanding how the archive intersects with the film object. As access increases for the image bank, filmmakers are also increasing their use of an archive, using that archive on their own terms rather than retaining a sense of narrative authenticity of the source material. As Russell puts it, “images are constitutive of historical experience and not merely a representation of it”7Ibid,11-12. If we begin to understand that archived film materials make history as much as represent history, we can see how film becomes an interesting site to discuss the archive because it makes theories of the archive visible. Although Russell’s theories are foundational for this paper, Russell does not get to the point of discussing the colonial archive.

I bring in Lisa Lowe’s The Intimacies of Four Continents (2015) to supplement my reading of the archive of Shirkers. In discussing Lowe’s work, I want to ground the notion that archives exist physically, as opposed to Russell’s image bank, and that archives are tied to the state apparatus. Lowe’s intention for writing a book such as The Intimacies of Four Continentsis to unsettle the intimacies of the historical past by revealing how knowledge production is structured by narratives of progress and development:

In reading British colonial state archives, literature, and political philosophy, I have been concerned to specify the broad manner in which coloniality operated in practical spheres for the discipline, subjugation, and organization of peoples, and moreover, how it has shaped the knowledge received about those processes, and the limits of what can be thought and imagined … Put simply, my readings of the past unsettle and recast the dominant histories we receive of liberal modernity.8Lisa Lowe,The Intimacies of Four Continents,Duke University Press, (2015): 137.

In doing this work of unsettling, Lowe puts forth the idea of the “history of the present” (136), which is not a simple recovery of the past nor a retelling of the past in more positive terms. Rather, the unsettling of the past releases the present from the dictates of a constructed past. It is only by defamiliarizing the object of the past can we begin to think of new ways of “knowing, thinking, and being.”9Ibid, 137. In her archival research, Lowe reads across time and space in order to expose the historical intimacies that were once thought of as separate because of their different locations in the colonial archives. For Lowe, it is necessary to break with traditional modes of reading and organizing history in order to begin seeing how history has been dominantly structured by narratives of progress and development.

Lowe calls her archive, the “archive of liberalism,” that is:

… the literary, cultural, and political philosophical narratives of progress and individual freedom that perform the important work of mediating and resolving liberalism’s contradictions— with the colonial state archives from which it has been traditionally separated, and the anticolonial intellectual traditions infrequently considered alongside the imperial one.10Ibid,4.

Lowe is much more concerned about what the archive conceals rather than what it reveals. Coming from a postcolonial perspective, Lowe understands the power of empire and how empire wields power through the narratives that it tells of history. By reading into the gaps and fissures of the archive, Lowe dismantles empire’s power and status as the center of knowledge production. She disrupts the center-periphery model, where empire is the center and the colonies are the periphery, to instead think about how these separated geographies are connected spatially and temporally under the framework of intimacy. In other words, violent colonial processes, such as settler colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade, bring areas such as China and the Caribbean intimately close together because their histories are entangled with the histories of empire. Although Lowe does not discuss the film object in her work, I believe her theorizations are still valuable in my own reading of Shirkers. Whereas Russell gets us to think about how the archive is employed in the documentary, that is, how is the footage of the 1992 Shirkers recontextualized in the 2018 documentary, Lowe gets us to think about why the 1992 footage was lost in the first place. Once we are able to think about the lost object, we can also begin to think about new futures, falling in line with both Russell and Lowe.

Because the narrative of Shirkers is driven by Tan’s affective attachments to the archive, I bring in Ann Cvetkovich’s An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures to think about how something as immaterial as feelings can be archived and how feelings negotiate the relationship between past and present. As much as the archive is structured by power, I believe the archive is also structured around feelings. Ann Cvetkovich’s “archive of feelings” can be a method of reading a cultural text, such as Shirkers, in order to think about how affect can mediate one’s own relationship to time and place. Because it is not physically rooted, affect can circulate widely and can travel across time. Utilizing an affective framework continues and supplements the work of Russell and Lowe in their attempts to resist the teleological telling of history. Specifically, Cvetkovich’s point of entry into the “archive of feelings” is trauma. She writes:

My hope of making the book’s marginal, idiosyncratic, and sometimes unexpected sites relevant to more general understandings of sexual and national trauma is grounded in the conviction that trauma challenges common understandings of what constitutes an archive.Because trauma can be unspeakable and unrepresentable and because it is marked by forgetting and dissociation, it often seems to leave behind no records at all. Trauma puts pressure on conventional forms of documentation, representation, and commemoration, giving rise to new genres of expression, such as testimony, and new forms of monuments, rituals, and performances that can call into being collective witnesses and publics.11Ann Cvetkovich, “Introduction”An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures,Duke University Press, (2015): 7.

Ultimately, Cvetkovich does this work around the archive in order to discover alternative formations of public cultures, particularly for queer and female subjects. By drawing out the affective registers embedded in cultural texts as well as in the production and reception of those texts, Cvetkovich argues that affect serves as the foundation of the formation of public cultures.12Ibid,10. Yet, my reasoning in bringing in Cvetkovich’s work into my reading of Shirkers is not to consider whether new public cultures can be formed in the reception around the documentary, but rather how my reading of Shirkers as an “archive of feelings” aids in the project of re-scripting time and history.

Taken together, Russell, Lowe, and Cvetkovich approach the archive from different angles and disciplines, which goes to show that there is no singular way to define or to use the archive in scholarly or creative work. Yet as I have pointed out, the archive can be a site to promote interdisciplinarity. Reading these three theorists together, I can identify the gaps in their respective research, but I can also find connections between their works. Since this paper mainly focuses on the audiovisual archive with my use of Shirkers as a case study, I want to show that other theories of the archive are applicable even if those theorists do not critique film in their works. Reading Russell alongside Lowe and Cvetkovich expands the audiovisual archive to include feelings and ideas of post/coloniality. As with the example of Shirkers, the film object can have a colonial history and can have feelings attached to it. Not all film objects are found or collected, correlating with Russell’s reading of the Benjaminian collector. Some film objects were violently stolen, distorted, and abjected, and some of these objects might not even be returned to its original owners. But with all archives, nothing is ever complete, and it becomes another archival practice to look into the gaps of the archive, to see what is missing, and to ask why it is missing.

Nature and Function of the Archive in Shirkers

The beginning of the 2018 Shirkers luxuriates in the concept of time—time lost and silenced to the past. Tan appears onscreen as her younger self, while her present voice narrating the documentary mournfully dwells on the loss of her youth. Tan states, “When I was eighteen, a long time ago, I had the idea … that you had to go backwards in order to go forwards.” The feeling of nostalgia is foregrounded in these initial moments, and there seems to be a desire to return to some glorious past. As Tan reminisces over her youthful ambitions to produce the 1992 Shirkers, we see images from the original reels. Immediately, Tan opens her documentary with a play between the past, represented in the footage, and the present, represented in the voiceover narration. Yet, this return to the past is not one of joy. Rather, Tan reveals her fraught relationship with the 1992 Shirkers, which can also be read as a fraught relationship with history and the archive. The 1992 Shirkers was poised to be Singapore’s next big independent feature film, and it would have been Tan’s big break into the film industry. However, the film was never made and remains absent within Singapore’s film history. What becomes even more interesting is Tan’s amplifications of absence in her 2018 documentary. She glosses over the topics of postcoloniality and misogyny that permeate the documentary, making no attempt to discuss or deconstruct those issues as part of the narrative. I identify these traces of postcoloniality and misogyny in the documentary’s presentation of Tan’s relationship with Cardona. There is an uneven power dynamic between Cardona and Tan, evidenced by differences of age, gender, ethnicity, and nationality. Their relationship replicates the relationship between colonizer (Cardona) and colonized (Tan). So, the complete disavowal of these gendered and post/colonial realities is both shocking and fascinating. I read this documentary as having an unconscious, an untold narrative that is relegated to the background. The documentary mulls over a lost object, the footage of the 1992 Shirkers, and presents a melancholic story of what could have been, but that is not the narrative that I am interested in exploring. Rather, I want to think about what was lost in history and ask why the object was lost in the first place, and what the implications are for the future now that we can think about the lost object. In doing this kind of work, I ask: What is the archive of Shirkers, and how can the awakening of that archive allow for the potentiality of re-scripting of time and history?

Shirkers is an archival film in two ways. First, Shirkers is a film made possible by the reuse of a vast number of archival documents: the footage of the 1992 Shirkers, a collection of her zines, Shirkers production documents, home photographs, and home videos. Following Russell’s definition of archiveology, Shirkers would be a documentary that exemplifies that practice, reusing and collaging found and collected materials in ways that were not previously intended. Second, Shirkers itself is an archive because the documentary becomes an assemblage of Tan’s histories, friendships, desires, and affects, all mashed up into one site. This brings us back to the question of what is an archive and what is its function? In this case, Tan’s archive is assembled into a documentary narrative and it functions as a semi-confessional, semi-detective film where Tan relives her past, and questions the events that transpired. Her attempts to present a cohesive narrative of the events surrounding the production of the 1992 Shirkers, that is, a story that begins with a conflict and ends with closure, is representative of Lowe’s “archive of liberalism.” Tan’s narration obscures gendered and post/colonial realities that would otherwise disrupt the narrative cohesiveness if it were addressed. Following Lowe, my own reading of Shirkers breaks with a traditional viewing of the documentary. I am not so interested in what Tan is presenting to her audience when she narrates the documentary. Instead, I am interested in what Tan does not tell the audience and how I can extract other conditions of possibility that emerges out of Shirkers? And with that, what new futures does Shirker sallow the viewers to imagine once the past has been unsettled?

When the footage of the 1992 Shirkers is reused in the 2018 documentary, the footage is awakened from the archive in its rediscovery. The concept of “awakening” comes from Walter Benjamin’s theorizations, conceiving that all cultural artifacts have an afterlife that has yet to be awakened. Writing about the concept of awakening, Russell says, “By pitching outmoded dreams and desires against contemporary forms of commodity capitalism, Benjamin imagined a dialectical recognition of the failed promise and potential of technologies for social justice”13Catherine Russel,Archiveology: Walter Benjamin and Archival Film Practices,Duke University Press, (2018): 195. For Benjamin, the concept of “awakening” helps us unlock something about the past that was otherwise hidden without the hopes and technologies of capitalism. “Awaken” is exactly what Tan does when she deploys the 1992 footage in the 2018 documentary. Why Tan chooses to awaken the film object is another point of discussion. Because Tan continues to have affective attachments to the 1992 Shirkers, she cannot let go of the film or of the time period during production, even after twenty-years later when she is making the documentary. As one of her friends/documentary subjects states, “And so what you’re [Tan] doing is not bringing Shirkers [1992] back to life, but giving it an afterlife … and back to us.” In its afterlife, Tan unlocks the affective registers that remained with the footage and imbues the footage with new, contemporary feelings. Said differently, the feelings of the past become feelings of the present, thereby scrambling the distinction between past and present. As Tan awakens the 1992 footage, she brings it back to her and her friends, but the footage comes back with a new story to tell.

In Shirkers, Tan does not make it clear to the viewer that the footage that she uses is drawn from the stolen footage until about two-thirds into the documentary. In one of the most crucial and haunting moments of the film, Tan reveals that the footage that we have been watching all along is the original footage of Shirkers. Tan says, “Shirkers was returned to us as a mute.” Tan then precedes to play the footage without any audible sound. The silence is deafening and conjures a haunted-ness to the footage that was not so immediately explicit in the beginning of the documentary. The viewer sees Tan as S, along with the young boy, the nurse, and the nurse’s daughter. They are watching a slideshow and the daughter suddenly has an epileptic attack. S and the boy watch. The silent sequence is short, but it remains a significantly affective moment because it conjures up the realization of how much Tan was affected by Cardona’s actions. The full force of haunted-ness hits the viewer and it becomes clear why Tan does not attempt to finish the film after the footage has been returned. Instead, Tan makes this documentary, contemplating the feeling of lost and searching for a sense of closure that always seems to escape her. The history of the 1992 Shirkers remains fragmented and there is no possibility of ever recuperating that history in the present. When this silent sequence is contrasted with an earlier sequence when Tan narrates Shirkers reading off the manuscript, it becomes even clearer that Shirkers can only exist in its afterlife. Now physically possessed in her hands, the footage still reminds Tan of her lost and incomplete dreams. However, through the practice of archiveology, Tan has awakened other meanings that have been present in the footage but were not wholly conceivable at the time when the footage was filmed.

The awakening from the archive creates the “dialectical image.” Defining the dialectical image, Russell writes:

For while the relation of the present to the past is purely temporal, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical; not temporal in nature but figural <bildich>.Only dialectical images are genuinely historical — that is, not archaic — images. The image that is read — which is to say, the image in the now of its recognizability — bears to the highest degree the imprint of the perilous critical moment on which all reading is founded.14Ibid,52.

In other words, the dialectical image is historical because of the interplay between past and present within the image. Furthermore, following in line with Benjamin, there is always a projection of contemporary concerns onto the past. Therefore, the image is considered being constitutive of the historical “now.” In deploying the silent sequence so late into the documentary, Tan wants to the viewer to reflect back on what they have just watched. The project of trying to reconstruct the 1992 Shirkers will always escape Tan because the film is irreplaceable. However, in playing the sequence without any sound, Tan is giving the footage a different voice than from the original source material. Ironically, Tan is letting the footage speak for itself for the first time. In that moment, the distorted, fragmented object communicates the violence it has gone through, being stolen and having its sound discarded, but it also communicates a potential for a different future. That future is being part of a documentary. In going into an archive, Tan shows us how we can deal with the gaps and fissures present in the archive. The silence sequence prompts us to think about what we are to do with an incomplete archive. As Russell and Lowe show us, gaps should not be taken as a dead-end, but rather as an opportunity to rethink the past in order to create a better future.

The silence sequence illustrates how the 2018 documentary cannot receive a traditional sense of closure because the 1992 footage’s histories is tied up with a traumatic event of theft. The failure of Cardona to return the 1992 Shirkers back to Tan placed Tan in an uneasy relationship to time. Instead of assimilating into linear time and progressing into the future, Tan remained haunted by the past that she could never fix. Tan’s deployment of Shirkers as an archive in her documentary draws out the affective registers and emphasizes how feelings of the past become feelings of the present. So, Shirkers is not so much about illuminating a lost history in Singapore’s cinematic history, but is more about how time and history do not conform so neatly to progression and linearity. Applying the theories of Russell, Lowe, and Cvetkovich, helped me dissect the 2018 Shirkers from multiple angles—the reuse of archival footage, the traces of post/coloniality permeating the documentary, and the feelings that drive the narrative and compelled Tan to make the documentary in the first place. On the flipside, Shirkers makes these theories of the archive visible, thus demonstrating how film can be an important site to discuss the archive.


1 Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia” Collected Papers, 4, (1917): 155.
2 Marlene Manoff, “Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines” The Johns Hopkins University Press, 4, no. 1 (2004): 13.
3 Ibid,9.
4 Catherine Russel, Archiveology: Walter Benjamin and Archival Film Practices (Durham: Duke University Press, (2018): 15.
5 Ibid,15.
6, 7 Ibid,11-12.
8 Lisa Lowe,The Intimacies of Four Continents,Duke University Press, (2015): 137.
9 Ibid, 137.
10 Ibid,4.
11 Ann Cvetkovich, “Introduction”An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures,Duke University Press, (2015): 7.
12 Ibid,10.
13 Catherine Russel,Archiveology: Walter Benjamin and Archival Film Practices,Duke University Press, (2018): 195.
14 Ibid,52.
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.