The first thing you need to know about Laura Bialis’ Rock in the Red Zone: it isn’t really about the music scene in Sderot, Israel—a town less than a mile from the Gaza Strip baring the twin monikers of the “City of Music” and the “Bomb Shelter Capital of the World.” At least, it isn’t so much about Sderot as Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March (1986) is about the American Civil War or Chris Marker’s San Soleil (1983) is about life in Japan and Guinea-Bissau. In reality, Rock in the Red Zone focuses more on Bialis’ personal journey from impartial American observer to proud Sderotian married to one of her subjects. In fact, at one point someone off-camera jokes that the real name of her film should be “An American in Sderot.”
But we critics aren’t traditionally very big on deliberately subjective documentaries, are we? I know I found myself rolling my eyes in the first few minutes of the film when Bialis’ voice-over intoned lines like “I’d always heard that good music came from hard places” and “Coming from Los Angeles, I felt like I had gone back in time to a less complicated world.” But as the film went on I found myself fascinated by the dual specters of the horrors (and beauties) of life in Sderot and Bialis’ transformation. Why would Bialis want to move from Los Angeles to Sderot, a town constantly bombarded by Qassams—rockets launched by Hamas—with only a Red Alert broadcast giving citizens 10-15 seconds to get into bomb shelters meaning the difference between life and death?
Bialis answers this question beautifully by pointing the camera at the resilient local population: how they transform the grief and trauma of war into messages of hope via music; how they turn bomb shelters into painted murals; how they refuse to let the bombardments ruin their daily lives. Indeed, one of the best scenes in the film involves a Qassam attack in a restaurant where, after the smoke clears, a customer continues their order from where it had been broken off mid-sentence. Though Bialis emphasizes the role of music in Sderot culture, the entire film seems like a portrait of a city under fire; a population under duress yet unbroken. The beauty of Rock in the Red Zone isn’t just that we understand why people might not want to leave Sderot, but also that we understand why people like Bialis would want to stay.