American filmmaker Laura Bialis “knew nothing” about Sderot in May 2007 when a friend sent her articles about Kassam rocket attacks that regularly plagued the Israeli development town on the Gaza border.
More than 7,000 Kassams had fallen on Sderot in the past seven years, she learned. Half the population had left; those who remained lived in a constant state of alert, rushing to bomb shelters several times a day. They’d been living that way for years.
“It shocked me to the core,” says Bialis, who’d spent three months in Israel in 2004 filming “Refusenik,” her documentary about a former Soviet Jewish activist, and who was now a regular visitor to the Jewish state. “How could this be going on and I’d never heard about it? Two people died that week in Sderot and it wasn’t even reported” in the media, she says.
Bialis became obsessed with the plucky, hard-hit border town, and when she discovered its burgeoning music scene — arguably the most influential in Israel — she was hooked. “It was a totally untold story,” she says.
She started filming in Sderot that summer. She traveled back and forth to the U.S. for months, and in December of that year decided to move to Sderot. She rented a house with her film’s main protagonist, a rising musician, so she could “get inside his head,” she explains.
She did that, and more — she married him.
“Rock in the Red Zone” is the documentary that came out of her multiyear adventure. It is an intimate portrait of a handful of musicians who channel the pain and chaos of living under attack into soulful, biting song. The film screens Thursday, Oct. 22 in Sebastopol as part of the Sonoma County Jewish Film Festival. Bialis will be on hand for a Q&A after the screening; her musician husband, Avi Vaknin, will perform.
“Avi did not want to be part of the movie at all when we started,” Bialis told J. by phone from their home in Tel Aviv. “He was very skeptical about the press, he didn’t like how Sderot was portrayed in the Israeli media. They just show up and do a superficial job.”
When she told him she was so committed to the project she was moving to Sderot, he slowly got on board. But Bialis insists there was no thought of romance when they first rented a house together. “He thought it was kind of weird” to share a home with a woman he wasn’t involved with, she says. But she was eager to get to know him and his friends as intimately as possible, to tell the story of a town under siege through exploration of the daily lives of those making music there.
“What is it like to make music in a war zone? That’s what I wanted to show,” she says.
The film — shot mainly from late 2007 to early 2009 — provides a fascinating look at Vaknin and his friends. Editing and extended research, including the acquisition of Israeli television footage, took an additional five years, and the film was finally finished in 2014. Bialis and Vaknin are now taking it on the film festival circuit, beginning this month.
Bialis is obsessed with telling the story of Sderot to American Jewish audiences who think they know Israel, but who, like her, don’t often see beyond Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
“I want to bring [to viewers] the intensity, the tumult, the crazy, creative energy that’s coming out of this place,” she says. “Sderot, as much as it’s in the periphery, is a symbol of Israel. The way Israel acts toward Sederot is, in a way, the way the rest of the world acts toward Israel.”
The couple and their 5-year-old daughter still spend most Shabbats in Sderot with Vaknin’s family and friends. And like everyone in town, Bialis has a “red alert” app on her smartphone, which lets them know when a Kassam has been launched from Gaza, giving them 15 seconds to get to a bomb shelter.
Near the end of the film, Bialis is interviewing Vaknin in a Sderot café when a red alert sounds. A Kassam lands right next door; a minute later Vaknin returns to his seat and nonchalantly orders pasta.
“With cream sauce?“ the waitress asks. He nods.
“For me, that’s Israel,” Bialis says.
“Rock in the Red Zone” screens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 22 at the Rialto Cinemas, 6868 McKinley St., Sebastopol. Q&A and live music follows. $20. www.jccsoco.org/filmfestival