The residents of Sderot, Israel, a desert town a few miles from Gaza, keep their doors and windows wide open. This custom isn’t due to Sderot’s abundant aridity or neighborliness. It is, rather, the only way to hear the pathetically tinny rocket-alert sirens that routinely sound throughout the city. Upon the ringing of these alarms, everyone has fifteen seconds to scatter into bomb shelters; cars are stranded at intersections. Within minutes, though — unless a fatality or traffic-blocking demolition ensued — the drivers return calmly to their routes.
Laura Bialis’s Rock in the Red Zone is most chilling when it zeroes in on this systematic, almost mechanical freezing and unfreezing of activity — in restaurants, in markets, in homes. Her documentary is heartbreaking when it shows this communal layer of self-control starting to fray — a woman’s twitching panic attack; a man’s disbelief, even in a town this vulnerable, that a missile launch could hit his street. And Bialis’s growing immersion in the town is poignant, even admirable.
To the film’s slight detriment, though, the heart of the story turns out to be its least effective component: the various emo, klezmer, and pop musicians (among them solo artist Avi Vaknin, whom Bialis eventually married) who persevere through peril writing revolutionary songs. It’s touching to see this music gain exposure and garner overdue attention for Sderot, but the songs themselves aren’t trenchant or searing enough to fascinate.
Still, there are plenty of devastating themes to meditate on here, from the recollections of Ashkenazi persecution against the first wave of Sephardic immigrants to Sderot to the fact that the residents are just as angry at their own government — which neglects this war-torn stretch of Israel — as they are at their antagonists.
Rock in the Red Zone
Directed by Laura Bialis
Opens November 12, Cinema Village
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 10, 2015