In the war-torn city of Sderot, Israel, in the midst of Hamas bombings, there exists a (literal) underground music scene, in which enthusiastic hopefuls have found a way to articulate their pain and express political outrage through the use of their art. Rock in the Red Zone is the well-intentioned, if unfocused, story of these vibrant musicians who write lyrics in between warning sirens over the citywide PA system. Although the scatterbrained documentary clearly empathizes with its subjects, it lacks the critical objectivity necessary to accurately relay their tale.
“I’d always heard that good music came from hard places, so I headed to Sderot to meet the musicians, to hear the music, and to see the world through their eyes. I had no way of knowing that this story would take years to unfold and that it would change my life forever.” This is how director Laura Bialis (Refusenik, View From The Bridge: Stories from Kosovo) chooses to begin her documentary, a taste of the cool-toned, cloying voice-over narration that would forcibly direct the audience throughout the remainder of the film. It’s a dusty relic of documentary filmmaking that many have agreed to leave in the past, and here it makes Rock in the Red Zone feel more like a PBS featurette than a theatrical release. Bialis tells her viewer precisely what they are supposed to feel at any given moment, rather than allowing them to experience the film on their own terms. It doesn’t help that she continues to put herself at the forefront of the story, even including home videos from her youth and, for some unknown reason, footage from her own wedding.
“…an underground music scene, where hopefuls have found a way to articulate their pain and express political outrage through their art.”
That being said, the scoop she’s uncovered is an inherently intriguing one. Rock in the Red Zone is, at its core, an uplifting tale of overcoming hardship and creating art out of adversity. After we are afforded a brief history of displaced Jews seeking refuge in Israel and a recap of the rocket-firing so prevalent in the Gaza Strip today, it becomes increasingly apparent how music is used as an expression of heritage, as well as an extension of self. Bialis humanizes her subjects, focusing on a holistic view of their lives, rather than simply how they operate within the context of their strife. She will often give disenfranchised voices an opportunity to tell their own story, capturing specific moments in their daily lives as a way of exploring the depths of their culture.
Unfortunately, Rock in the Red Zone could have benefited from a significantly more focused hand. It gets easily distracted and periodically forgets altogether about the band at its center. Perhaps this story, as compelling as it is, doesn’t warrant a feature-length exploration, as is evidenced by the amount of filler Bialis chooses to include, not the least of which being a cutesy moment involving a connection to John Denver. After a somewhat promising start, the documentary ultimately falls victim to its own absent-minded digressions. Somewhere between bomb shelter testimonials and strained stories of Bialis’s love life, the viewer is left to struggle to put their pieces together, wondering if the final image is worth the effort.
Rock in the Red Zone (2018) Written and directed by Laura Bialis. Written By Laura Bialis. Starring: Laura Bialis, Avi Vaknin, Robby Elmaliah, Hagit Yaso, Micha Biton.
5 out of 10