SGIFF 2021 Review: ‘Scene UnSeen’3 min readReading Time: 3 minutes
Comprising interviews, archival footage and animation, Scene UnSeen captures the pleasures and pains of Singapore’s underground music scene, as shared by icons from the punk, hardcore, metal and alternative genres.
Directors: Abdul Nizam and Friends
Runtime: 105 minutes
The documentary offers a blisteringly honest look at Singapore’s underground music scene. Tracing its genealogy through interviews and rare archival footage, Scene UnSeen highlights the struggles and varying perspectives on what it means to be underground, and how generations have pushed on, united under the same hopes of etching their individual voices in claustrophobic Singapore.
Truly, the only strike against Scene UnSeen is its length. Milestones are touched upon before hopping on the next while leaving an unmistakable sense that there is so much left unseen in the chapters of individual musicians and bands.
It certainly isn’t because of the documentary’s lack of thoroughness either. Interviewees share their memories and experiences in warm and excited tones only possible from the homely atmosphere the late Abdul Nizam, who himself was a key figure in the scene, brought. They could, and certainly have, said more; the documentary team shared that a lot was left on the cutting room floor at the post-screening Q&A.
Melancholic nostalgia seems to be the dominant mood in Scene UnSeen, especially in its first half. Archival footages are minimised and framed like rearview mirrors, and any vestiges of growth are snuffed out as quickly as they are mentioned. There is even a brief scene of Eric Khoo glumly contemplating with a cigarette in hand to twist in the mood.
Scene UnSeen does shirk from inter-scene creative or interpersonal tensions that are almost always a given in any art scene, and instead focuses on unity against some larger force. A key example comes from its showcase of The Substation’s early days, when every subculture gathered to lend their support to any genre and any band that performed. Everyone did eventually splinter, which was reasoned in the documentary as an evolution. Angles such as these do lead the documentary to have a prevailing sense that everything detailed might have been seen through rose-tinted glasses.
However, that’s not to say Scene UnSeen presents a completely peachy view. There are no qualms in bringing to light the systemic issues that have affected and continue to plague the underground. The crosshairs eventually settle on the struggles women face in the scene, namely of being objectified, harassed and shunned by their male counterparts. It’s especially horrifying and frustrating to learn that these are still prevalent today.
Scene UnSeen does make its premiere at a treacherous junction for the underground — and really, for all artists in Singapore. The scene has suffered countless setbacks from The Powers That Be for decades, and even if the pandemic is a different beast altogether, the documentary still concludes by embodying the spirit of what has kept generations of rebels going.
The idealism, the willingness to bleed for the community and the unwillingness to stay down — these are expressed not through a defiant roar, but through the simple, poignant notion that as long as someone out there looks to express themselves through music, the underground will live on.
The documentary flows like a zine with all corners of the community coming together to contribute a page or two. The space is limited but individual entries still overflow with personality and unwritten memories. Scene UnSeen is more than just a lovingly crafted tribute — it’s an essential primer.
Scene UnSeen made its world premiere at the Singapore International Film Festival 2021.