Sderot ought to be known as Israel’s Seattle, considering how many earthy and influential Israeli rock bands have hailed from there. Unfortunately, the constant rocket attacks from Gaza have thus far frightened off potential music tourists. By the time filmmaker Laura Bialis arrived, seven thousand so-called Qassam rockets had already pummeled the city of some 20,000 citizens—and Hamas was only getting started. However, Bialis would not be dissuaded from documenting the Sderot scene in Rock in the Red Zone (trailer here), which opens this Thursday in New York.
A Qassam is basically a flying pipe bomb loaded with shrapnel. From a legitimate military perspective, they are too unpredictable for practical use, but they are perfect for inflicting pain on innocent civilians. Of course, that is exactly why Hamas and their fellow terrorists use them. When Bialis started filming in Sderot, the city was just inside the so-called Red Zone, making it ground zero for Qassam attacks. Thanks to the alert system, Sderot residences had fifteen seconds to find shelter after a launch was detected (that’s fifteen Mississippi’s). Eventually, other cities started to feel Sderot’s pain, but for years, Qassam attacks were a perversely localized phenomenon. Music became the coping mechanism for a deeply traumatized city.
For Bialis and many young Sderot musicians, it all starts with Sderock, a club and rehearsal studio conveniently located in a bomb shelter. You had better get used to seeing concrete reinforced basements. Bialis’s filming is interrupted at least dozen times (probably more) by launch warnings. None of it was included for effect. It is simply impossible to make a documentary in Sderot without the sound of explosions.
Avi Vaknin, the proprietor of Sderock, will introduce Bialis to a host of diverse musicians calling Sderot (and its outskirts) home. In many ways, their brand of rock incorporating what could be described as world music influences has conquered the Israeli mainstream, yet at that point, Sderot still felt isolated and forgotten. Since both were looking for flats, Vaknin and Bialis became housemates—and life continued, despite the constant raining terror.
Bialis is a world class documentarian who previously made the outstanding Refusenik, but the immediacy and emotional resonance of Red Zone is something else entirely. Literally years in the making, it witnesses over a decade of Israeli history from the perspective of the bullseye in the center of Hamas’s target. At times it is harrowing, but it is also funny and deeply passionate, particularly the music.