Rock in the Red Zone documents life in a war-torn city known for its rich history of music and the musicians along the way, showing how these artists cope with the pain and suffering inflicted upon their town.
Laura Bialis intended to create a film that revealed the reality of civilians living with the constant threat of rockets dropped on their doorsteps in Sderot in 2007.
To her surprise, her storytelling became deeply personal, and, in addition to making her documentary, she found a new love, a new address and a new life.
Bialis directed and narrated Rock in the Red Zone, which she filmed over the course of seven years.
It documents life in a war-torn city known for its rich history of music. She meets several musicians along the way, showing how these artists cope with the pain and suffering inflicted upon their town.
The film, which won the Best Documentary Audience Award at the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival in 2015, will be shown as part of the Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia on March 19 at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy.
Sderot had been the target of ongoing missile strikes from the Gaza Strip starting around the year 2000 — sometimes 50 rockets a day — but back in 2007, Bialis was shocked that she heard so little about the devastation of a city less than a mile from the closest Gaza border.
“I was so surprised because I had been to Israel a lot in the previous years to make another film,” she recalled. “I couldn’t believe I had never heard of this situation.”
After more research, she discovered Sderot’s music scene, which she described as “the Liverpool or the Seattle of Israel.”
Fascinated, she started to wonder how musicians living in this town were coping with the constant war zone and how it was affecting their music and creative process.
With an interesting universal perspective to enter the story, Bialis began interviewing Sderot musicians in July 2007.
After some thought, she eventually moved there to really understand what these people were going through.
After six months, she moved in with one of the main characters of the documentary, Avi Vaknin, which is when the film started to get very personal for Bialis — she and Vaknin fell madly in love and later married.
“That’s how it became personal,” she acknowledged. “A few months after I moved there, I found myself living with my character and running with my camera to the bomb shelter all the time, really experiencing this life and then getting really entrenched within a relationship with one of the characters, and then living there for two years.”
“It was a tough, long process,” Vaknin said of making the film.
“She wanted to know how it is to live there, so she asked me to look for apartments for her, and then we moved together somehow,” he continued. “I had a feeling that she was there for the right reasons. She wanted to show what’s happening there. I think I fell in love with her in that moment.”
Vaknin lived in Sderot for about 12 years. The songwriter plays guitar, piano and drums.
“It’s a love story,” he added. “It’s about resilience, about music, about people that live in a small town and keep living their lives even though they have rockets every day.”
The couple moved to Tel Aviv a few years later, unrelated to the activity in Sderot, though Bialis said it was relatively calm by then anyway.
“I didn’t know how to handle the fact that I was now in the movie,” she continued. “It was a big challenge for me personally.”
Vaknin’s story, among other Sderot citizens and their experiences within a political hotspot, take the forefront of the film.
“I was able to capture longer strands of stories than I if had made the film in a year,” she added.
In Sderot, musical influences come from the sounds of Morocco, North Africa, Tunisia and parts of Middle East.
“Sderot is one of the places where the Middle Eastern and North African sounds are now really prevalent in Israeli music,” she said.
Vaknin and a fellow musician featured in the film, Micha Biton, will participate in a Q&A and play some of their music at the film festival. Bialis will remain in California at her parents’ home, tending to her weeks-old newborn.
Of the years she spent in Sderot, Bialis admitted there were moments where she was very afraid. The tzeva adom, or red alert, sounded constantly, which warned people to get to a bomb shelter within only 15 seconds.
She heard the bombs fall all around them — across the street, on neighboring homes, but, fortunately, never on her own.
And yet, there were other moments where the fear subsided.
“I was not married at the time and not a mom — I think we have this false sense of invincibility when we’re single and free,” she laughed.
“I was not afraid to go there, interestingly enough. I had gone to Kosovo after the war, too. I don’t know why I didn’t feel afraid. I guess if Israelis could deal with it, then I could deal with it, too.”
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