Rock in the Red Zone takes you right into the heart of the music culture of Sderot, Israel. It’s a personal view from the ground of Israelis living along the Gaza border, and a powerful exploration into the lives and art of musicians struggling to create in a conflict zone. The film is available now on VOD.)
A fascinating personal documentary that starts out as one kind of movie before switching cinematic gears and morphing into something quite different, Rock in the Red Zone is the fifth film – and fourth feature – from director Laura Bialis (Refusenik). As we learn at the start of the story, Bialis (a Jewish woman from California) is drawn to her subject – the town of Sderot, in Israel – initially because of the drama of its precarious position as the main target of rockets from Gaza. 50 times a day, these missiles rain down, sometimes killing, sometimes merely causing injury or property damage. And yet, Sderot remains, despite it all, a center for music, in defiance of the bullseye on its forehead. True, rehearsals take place in bomb shelters, but, as Bialis discovers, the human animal can acclimate to just about anything. The film is much more than a tale of woe and resistance, however, as Bialis immerses herself so thoroughly in the story that she quickly becomes a major part of it, as well. It is, above all, a romance.
We start with the music, meeting the Sderot-based band The Teapacks as they play their song “Push the Button” at the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest. From there, Bialis takes us to the town, itself, explaining its plight, and then breaks down her own history with Israel, treating us to home movies of a trip she took as a child to Masada. As a thorough storyteller, Bialis also sets up the history of Sderot’s population, which is made up primarily of North African – or Mizrahi – Jews, who are often regarded as less than desirable by the more established Sephardic and Ashekenazi groups. This perhaps makes clear why there appears to be a lack of urgency to the government’s response to the daily rocket strikes. To be fair, it is difficult to stop attacks from myriad, hydra-like sources. Still, all of these disparate (yet related) threads are part of the rich tapestry Bialis weaves about the power of art to raise and sustain morale.
But something lovely happens on the way to the bomb shelter: Bialis falls in love (with one of these … *gasp* … Mizrahi men!). Soon, as her story and that of Avi (one of the musicians) become inextricably intertwined, the boundaries between the intimate and the objective blur beyond recognition. This is personal filmmaking par excellence. And yet it never feels self-indulgent, since the director’s voyage mirrors our own: first we are outsiders, learning the details of this new, alien world, bit by bit; then, slowly, we become acclimated, and find ourselves firmly embedded with the subjects. Despite this close association with the victims, Bialis resists the temptation to completely demonize those in Gaza, and at one point touches upon the despair that must motivate their actions. Still, the Palestinians remain faceless, and those looking for a greater political discussion will be disappointed. For this, instead, is the inspirational true story of how the people of Sderot manage to rock on in the middle of danger. Peace.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)