‘Rock in the Red Zone:’ Music helps Israelis survive in Sderot

A scene from "Rock in the Red Zone." —Courtesy rockintheredzone.com

Updated, Thursday, Aug. 11, 4 pm

“Rock in the Red Zone,” a documentary about Sderot, a beleaguered Israeli town at the edge of the Gaza Strip, plays at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival on Wednesday, August 17, at the Chilmark Community Center. Director Laura Bialis will lead a post-screening discussion.

The Palestinian Hamas and Libyan Hezbollah organizations have launched 50 rockets a day at this small city near the Negev Desert. While the current death rate of 13 Israelis may not seem high, the Qassam rocket attacks have caused millions of dollars in damage, and some 75 percent of the town’s children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Many of Sderot’s young men have responded by turning the town into a hotbed of popular rock and pop music.

American-born director Ms. Bialis visited Sderot in 2007 to document the troubles of these courageous citizens. She ended up marrying singer and composer Avi Vaknin, who managed the bomb-shelter-turned-music-club Sderock.

After the formation of the State of Israel in 1948, Sderot was originally founded as a transit camp for Persian and Kurdish refugees in 1951. Eventually Moroccans comprised a large portion of its population. The music that developed later has been heavily influenced by Moroccan culture. Some band members in the film suggest the Israeli government hasn’t retaliated more forcefully against the Sderot bombings because the town’s primarily North African and Middle Eastern residents are looked down upon.

“Rock in the Red Zone” resonates with music by groups like the Teapacks, whose members have Tunisian, Moroccan, Romanian, Syrian, Polish, Russian, and Yemenite heritage. Teapacks lead singer Kobi Oz has become an Israeli pop culture hero. Hagit Yaso, whose parents emigrated from Ethiopia, sings in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. The musicians pay particular attention to the city’s teenagers by supporting their musical growth.

The red alerts, which warn Sderotis of an incoming missile, give them 15 seconds to take shelter. They keep windows open to be sure to hear the sirens; children play on equipment that doubles as bomb shelters. “Not knowing what could happen moment by moment has made us treasure every moment,” one musician says in the film. The powerful music of “Rock in the Red Zone” lifts this film from the doldrums of despair.

Demonstrations by Sderotis in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem inspire Israelis from other locations to come to the city and buy food for Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath, despite the danger of bombs. “Avi proposed to me in a bomb shelter,” Ms. Bialis said. The couple’s Sderoti wedding was the first in years. When a cease fire was enacted, the citizens felt relief and hope. Then the related peace talks fell apart and the bombing resumed.

“Rock in the Red Zone” offers compelling insight into what one Israeli city suffers from in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine.

For more information and tickets, visit tmvff.org.

This article was updated to correct some misinformation. Sderot was not designed as a settlement to contain Palestinians in the Gaza strip, with Moroccans becoming the majority of the settlers. Sderot was used as a transit camp, not a settlement for Palestinians. As time went on, Moroccans came to comprise a large portion of its population.