Film Review: ‘Rock in the Red Zone’ Directed by Laura Bialis

Like the best films, Rock in the Red Zone raises and deals with serious questions about roots, a person’s sense of belonging, and other issues.

Scene from ‘Rock in the Red Zone.’ (photo credit: PR)
Scene from ‘Rock in the Red Zone.’
(photo credit: PR)
Sometimes the documentaries that state Israel’s case most powerfully have no polemics, academics or politicians in them. Instead of dogmatic ideology and the usual lineup of older male talking heads, Rock in the Red Zone, a new film by Laura Bialis, focuses on real people who aren’t right- or left-wing – in fact, the only thing they share is that they were on the receiving end of rocket barrages fired from Palestinians in Gaza over the course of many years, and that for solace, they turned to music.
The then-Los Angeles-based Bialis, who had completed the acclaimed documentary Refusenik, was drawn to Sderot in 2007 after hearing about the thriving music scene in the city beleaguered by Hamas rockets. Bands like Teapacks, K’nesiyat HaSekhel (Church of Reason) and Sfatayim (Lips) had all started out in the southern city which had gained the reputation of “ir hamusica,” the city of music.
Like the soul music that originated in America’s south and gritty urban locales like Detroit, or the rock sounds emanating from depressed blue-collar British sites like Liverpool and Birmingham, Bialis followed the sounds to Sderot because as she narrates in the film, “I’d always heard that good music comes from hard places.” She found a lot more than music. As a three-week shoot evolves into a two-year stay over 2007 and 2008, Bialis takes the viewer into a city and into the lives of people who feel cut off from the rest of their country.
Expertly combining riveting real-time footage of rocket attacks – some of them involving some of the main subjects in the film – and unhurried cinema verite scenes of debates, breakdowns, Color Red siren chaos and loving moments surrounding music, Bialis turns this from a “fish out of water” music scene film and into a gripping encounter with life and resilience, choices, defeats and triumphs.
Bialis draws the viewer in through her careful selection of Sderot personalities she chose to focus on – including articulate local musician like Avi Vaknin who ran a local music education program called Sderock in a bomb shelter, and one of Vaknin’s teenage music students, a wonderfully engaging Hagit Yaso, who three years later went on to win the Kohav Nolad TV competition. By the end of the film, we’ve seen them grow and change and we end up caring about them.
Replete with humor, drama and a compelling narrative, Rock in the Red Zone tells its story in a deliberate manner that hits harder with every Color Red siren. For a subject which has been covered wall to wall in the media, Bialis provides some surprise twists to the Sderot story, some of them involving herself. One of the most captivating story lines is how the outside Los Angeles chronicler of the events unfolding in Sderot undergoes her own transformation that led to some revelatory discoveries about her connection with the city and to the people living there – one in particular.
You don’t need to be a music fan to enjoy and feel touched by Rock in the Red Zone. It provides a powerful snapshot of the “real” Israel that shies away from politics but unflinchingly focuses on the effects of politics on the lives of people viewers can’t avoid feeling connected to. Sandwiched between Hamas on the one side and an uncaring government and fellow Israelis on the other, some Sderot residents can’t stand the onslaught of rockets and leave, others have no other place to go.
They all resonate straight to the heart.
Like the best films, Rock in the Red Zone raises and deals with serious questions about roots, a person’s sense of belonging, what a country’s responsibilities are to its citizens, and salvation through music. If that description sounds like a visual presentation of a particularly earnest Bruce Springsteen song, that’s because, like Springsteen’s most affecting work, the film forces the viewer to think about those very issues by skillfully weaving a tale with grace, dignity and attention to poignant details, not by pounding them over our heads.
With Rock in the Red Zone, Laura Bialis shows that she is the boss.