Rock in the Red Zone

A documentarian goes to Sderot to examine the city’s odd role as a locus of contemporary Israeli music and discovers a rich cultural history not much explored in mainstream Israeli art, as well as a more recent tradition of constantly being bombed by Palestine. Directed by Laura Bialik, who hasn’t filmed much since Refusenik, about the Soviet mistreatment of Jews who wished to go to Israel, this film sort of explains her absence, and transforms the documentary into something more meaningful.

After a short visit in Sderot where she gets to know the local music scene, she returns home to Los Angeles, and yet finds herself drawn back to the Holy Land (as often happens). Part of the attraction may be the presence of famous local musician Avi Vaknan, of course, as when she decides to stay in Sderot, they share a rental. Ultimately the two get married. (The movie is somewhat coy about the progress of their relationship but it seems as though Avi and Laura initially could barely understand each other, and she shocked the traditional Avi by suggesting they share the place.)

And so, we get a personal element into what would’ve been a nice documentary about how small town musicians (almost an Israeli Muscle Shoals) make good. Which would have made a nice story even nicer. But for the Qassams.

People live here.

One of a multitude of shelters in Sderot.

Qassams are the rockets that Palestinians launch into Israel, primarily to kill civilians. (Even Palestine leaders admit and “condemn” this, though apparently do nothing to stop it.) These started in earnest after Ariel Sharon evacuated the Gaza strip in a bid for peace which, of course, only emboldened the Palestinians into greater evil. They just launch these little artisanal rockets at Sderot and the surrounding areas because, well, why the Hell wouldn’t you? You’re only going to kill Jews or people who live near Jews. Win-win.

Seriously, this stuff is so obviously evil, it could only be ignored by the UN.

Anyway, Sderot’s people are largely Sephardim, the Mediterranean Jews, who have different traditions from the Mizrahim (Jews local to the Middle East) and of course different from the Ashkenazi, who were from Europe. The Ashkenazi have generally dominated the government (and, it seems to me, the media as well), and the Sephardim can feel like second-class citizens, particularly in the poor town of Sderot which the Israeli government allows to be bombed year after year.

Life in Sderot consists of trying to go about your daily duties, but never farther than 15 seconds away from one of the many bomb shelters all over the city. This is a sort of surreal existence, as there’s a strange combination of pride, of poverty, of fear, of stubbornness, all mixed together to keep the population of Sderot in its home town. In fact, Avi Vaknan is shown as being very standoffish early on in the film, because he’s used to media people (like Laura) coming in and showing the empty hull of a Qassam alongside of the damage, and he believes (or wants to believe) Sderot is more than that.

Vaknan’s studio/school, Sderock is located in an underground bunker, and the movie treats us to the various musicians being groomed to take their place on the Israeli national stage. This was probably the original film: These kids coming from a place of poverty and frequent actual physical explosions, going along making their music, and making a splash in the world.

Again, people live here.

The entrance to Sderock.

That’s a good story, and there’s a lot of truth to it. One of the students was a little black girl—perhaps Beta Israel (Ethiopian) or Bilad el-Sudan—with a heartbreakingly beautiful voice who actually does go on to win a national competition. And there’s no doubt that the music that comes out of Sderot is an interesting mix of Middle Eastern, Sephardic and Western traditions.

Then you step back and realize that 3/4s of the population of Sderot has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Thousands of rockets fall every year. The number of casualties is relatively small, and the ruling elite decrees this as not a serious threat, in the same manner that you’ll see all over the Western world. (Your chances of being struck by lightning are greater than being killed by a terrorist, they proclaim smugly, and it’s true, as long as you’re not in the World Trade Center on 9/11.)

So, the movie, rather than being a few week or month review of a musical culture in an unlikely place, becomes a multi-year adventure: The story of Laura and Avi in Sderot, as they struggle with a culture that happens to include ubiquitous rocket attacks. Add to that that as a musician, Vaknan would be far better off in Tel Aviv, and at some level you suspect it’s sheer defiance—unwillingness to surrender—that keeps him in Sderot.

At the end of the movie, we learn that Qassams have increasing range, and as the range increases to more important places, people start to get upset. Finally, now, the rockets can actually reach Tel Aviv. I actually don’t think this is classism or racism per se: I think it’s that we learn to accept that bad things happen in Other Places—much like the world does with Israel generally—and we don’t wake up until the threat starts to get a little closer to home.

Yeah. No words.

Suburbs in Sderot

As the various murderous jihadis spread through Europe and America, more people begin to find their behavior—which has been standard operating procedure for jihadis in Israel for decades—less acceptable. Not the ruling elite, of course. The ruling elite will ignore it to the very end.

That’s actually more of a political statement than the movie, itself very fact driven despite its very personal story, makes. On the three point scale:

1) Subject matter: Interesting and important.

2) Presentation: Bialis has a nice flair for stepping back and not making the documentary about her, even when it kinda-sorta is.

2) Bias: A lot less than there should be, I think. There’s so little rancor shown—I mean, even people in Sderot are sympathetic to Palestinians! They actually debate the morality of the situation in their bunker. That seems more accommodating of evil than I care for.

Anyway, it’s a good and eye-opening documentary.

On Poppy Hill

Laura and Avik with their daughter.

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