On Wednesday, January 20, I had the opportunity to attend an on-campus screening of Rock in the Red Zone, a documentary directed and produced by Laura Bialis. The documentary chronicles the experiences of Bialis as she moves to the Israeli city of Sderot, uncovers its thriving production of music, and finds love along the way.
The event was sponsored by the UCLA Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies and co-sponsored by the Department of Ethnomusicology and Mickey Katz Endowed Chair in Jewish Music. The screening took place at the James Bridges Theater and hosted a diverse audience of students, faculty, staff and other members of the community. Following a brief introduction by the Israel Studies Center’s leadership, the film began to play on screen.
Viewers become acquainted with Bialis, a Jewish California native and empowered filmmaker who captures whatever moves her. When she learned about the musical powerhouse located in the small city of Sderot in 2007, Bialis knew that her next film needed to explore this rarity. Sderot, a city in Israel’s southern region, is less than a mile from Hamas-controlled Gaza. Hamas is the primary military and political organization in Gaza, and is recognized as a terrorist group by Israel and the United States. In the last few years, the city of Sderot has been under heavy rocket fire coming in from its neighboring town, and this form of terror has had a major influence on the people of the region. Artists of Sderot are no exception. Inside bomb shelters, musicians write and produce their art in hopes that one day, someone abroad will hear their voices and understand the pressures under which they live. Bialis decided to take a flight to Sderot and get to the bottom of the story.
In the film, she interviews several artists who began their careers in their hometown of Sderot, including Kobi Oz of the Teapacks, Haim Ulliel of Sfatayim, and Kochav Nolad winner Hagit Yaso. For these artists, making music in Sderot is a form of demonstrating protest to terror, without the violence. While music producers try to convince them to establish headquarters in metropolitan areas such as Tel Aviv, these artists prefer to remain close to home. In fact, in one scene, viewers watch as an artist argues with his music video director and insists that his music video take place in Sderot.
After returning home, Bialis feels detached from her surroundings and realizes that she has a sincere connection with the people and spirit of Sderot. She makes the decision to formally move to Israel and live in Sderot, specifically.
From here on out, the film primarily centers on one main artist: Avi Vaknin, a Sderoti, and Bialis’ close friend. Instead of giving into the desire of his enemies and crouching in fear, Vaknin resists violence with his music. Even more so, he encourages local youth to unleash their anger and tension through art in a project he calls “The Hope Project.” In a very big way, Vaknin’s music reflects life in Sderot—the stresses, the terror, but also the beauty. In a time of trouble, with Sderot under constant attack, people crowd in bomb shelters as local businesses grow desolate. Suddenly, on a Friday, citizens from all over Israel drive into the city to do their weekly shopping for the Sabbath. This act of Israeli solidarity by investing in Sderot’s economy touched both viewers in the audience and residents of the border city. In addition to putting a smile on a Sderot cafe owner’s face on-screen, this act of kindness made me, as a viewer, tear with awe.
As Vaknin’s musical career flourishes, Bialis comes to admire the individual that he is. Funny, how in a place where rockets are meant to tear people apart, music has actually brought them together. The two friends enter into a relationship and eventually wed in Sderot, a rather unusual place to celebrate, by societal standards.
Parts of the wedding are featured in the movie. By including such a personal part of her life in the film, Bialis establishes an intimate and open space for viewers who might not have even known her name just a day earlier. As the newlyweds take on life in Sderot as a family, viewers watch as they undergo the daily struggles of life under rocket fire as a single entity. Eventually, the couple moves to Tel Aviv, the central music industry of Israel, to expand Vaknin’s music career. Nevertheless, the spirit of Sderot remains an integral part of their lives.
Following the screening, there was a question and answer session featuring Bialis and Vaknin, and moderated by UCLA Professor Kligman. Prior to starting the session, Vaknin played his acoustic guitar and strummed a melody that included low notes and high notes. Although I could not understand all of his lyrics because they were written in Hebrew, his later words in the question and answer portion made Vaknin’s point very clear: “…My father is 75 years [old and] is running to bomb shelters. I want to write about it. I want to write about war on some level. There’s an expression that if you give me an ashtray, I will write about the dirt. If I feel pain, I wanna write about that dirt.” His statement can be extrapolated to the low notes in his music, which evince the pain and traumatizing realities of life in Sderot. Afterwards, Vaknin pointed out that “[In Sderot]…you have to keep moving.” This Sderoti ideal of remaining persistent in the face of terror might explain those high notes I caught in his song.
Bialis later extrapolated on her husband’s words. “You don’t see that kind of thing [the ability to pick up the pace and move on] anywhere else [besides Sderot]…life goes on despite the tragedies, despite the hardships…and we’re just gonna keep on going because there’s no other option,” Bialis told audience members.
I left James Bridges Theater that night feeling inspired and impressed. I learned that stresses are an inevitable part of life; they are tough to handle, they can be scary, and their aftermath might bring about sadness. However, one must keep moving, because something good will come out of it. For some, that good might be music. For others, it could be love. To me, it is the mighty and artistic Sderot that stands as a beacon of goodness that blooms under the shadow of darkness.