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Located less than a mile from the Gaza Strip, the town of Sderot, Israel is famous for two things: Daily rocket attacks from Palestine and a thriving music scene. Despite the seemingly disparate nature of these characteristics, Laura Bialis’ new documentary “Rock in the Red Zone” focuses on the link between the two — namely, bomb shelters. Because of the near-constant bombings, Sderot is home to a bevy of bomb shelters (Wikipedia notes that some people refer to the town as the “Bomb Shelter Capital of the World,” which is depressing in a number of ways), many of which have helped foster creativity amongst its citizens.
Turns out, when you’re spending a lot of time in a bomb shelter, you figure out creative ways to make the minutes tick by a bit faster, like by playing music with your pals.
That’s the story Bialis set out to chronicle when she went to Sderot in 2007, but what she found was much more important — both personally and professionally — and her new film turns an interesting story into a compelling (and rocking) look at a unique place populated by some very special people.
“Rock in the Red Zone” is currently playing in limited release. Read more from Bialis about her experiences making the film below.
I woke up one morning in 2007 and I had a lot of emails from this friend of mine in Jerusalem about how there was this crisis in this town. They were being hit with fifty rockets a day. I had been to Israel several times and had done interviews there for a different film, and had gone, what I thought, was all over the country. I really thought that I was intimately aware of what was going on there, and I thought that I read everything, so when I heard these stories of what people were going through, my first response was to try to find everything that had been written about it here, and I didn’t see very much.
I discovered this had already been going on there for years, and that just blew me away. I was like, “What? How could something like this happen and we could just go along not knowing about it?” When I started Googling it, the couple of articles I found were about how this is a famous city of music. One band had just gone to Eurovision. That’s fascinating to me, what it is like for musicians to try to create in a warzone? I just kind of had to go.
I just up and went, I didn’t stop and get the funding. It was a totally non-rational decision, professionally speaking.
I sent a researcher down there, I asked him to go check it out for me. He reported back what was going on, he told me, “Yeah, there’s a bunch of kids who are making this album in a bomb shelter underground. It’s called The Hope Project,” and I was like, “Oh, my God, I’m coming, that’s a movie.”
When you listen to the news in Israel at night, it will have all the news, and then: “In other news, two rockets landed in Sderot today, there were no injuries, two people were treated for shock and now the weather!” When you hear that, as someone who lives in another city, you don’t know what a rocket attack is really like maybe, you don’t know what shock is maybe. It seems very not that big of a deal. When I showed up, I was met by these really warm people who were so grateful that I was going to tell their story. Especially coming from America to tell their story.
We initially went and had a three-week shoot. It was a pretty small crew of a cameraman, me, my producer and we also had a couple of local people helping us. It was a pretty small band of people. We did sit-down interviews with people, the teenage musicians, the older musicians, then we would film their rehearsals and some concerts and stuff around town. We kind of knew we were going to have to rely on other photographers for the kind of crazy footage, because unless you’re just standing by with a police scanner, you can’t possibly capture [the rocket attacks].
After that shoot, it was very much the feeling that we had captured a snapshot of this place, but we didn’t really have a story. We’d met these people, we’d heard about the history of music in this town, we’d learned what it was like to live under rocket fire. I had this instinct that if I really, really wanted to get the story, I’d have to live there.
One of the challenges was, there were a lot of people doing music. I had no idea who to follow, what was going to happen them. I was kind of all over the place. I had a lot of footage, because I didn’t know what was going to happen.
There’s a very good local film school that is in Sderot. I didn’t know that when I moved there. So I kind of moved to this town that was populated by all these film students, which was really cool for me.
It took a long time, because I had never intended in a million years to make a personal film. One of my mentors, he told me, “I hate to say this, but most people who make personal films get dragged into it, kicking and screaming.” And that’s exactly how I felt.
I wanted to show everybody what I saw. It wasn’t about, “This is about me, personally,” it was about what I’m seeing through my eyes, and how do I bring that to people who have never been to this place? It ended up being the way to tell the story that worked. Some people have issues with personal films, and I did.
For years, it was this struggle to finish it. “Are we going to get funding?” We had to keep switching editors, and we ended up with this amazing editing team at the end. It’s hard to have a film that goes on for years that’s unfinished. People ask me about it, and I’m like, “This was a slow-cooked project.”
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
READ MORE: Abramorama Set to Release Israeli Music Doc ‘Rock in the Red Zone’