‘Red Zone’ filmmaker on finding romance under rockets in Sderot

Filmmaker Laura Bialis had always felt a strong connection to Israel and had traveled there many times before, most recently for her 2007 documentary, “Refusnik,” about the persecution of Soviet Jews.
November 19, 2015

Filmmaker Laura Bialis had always felt a strong connection to Israel and had traveled there many times before, most recently for her 2007 documentary, “Refusnik,” about the persecution of Soviet Jews. But when she returned that same year to make another film, “Rock in the Red Zone,” her life changed in ways she never expected.

Bialis, a Los Angeles native, took note of news reports about the Negev city of Sderot, where residents, mainly descendents of Jewish refugees from North Africa and the Middle East, had been living under constant rocket fire from Hamas in nearby Gaza for the past seven years. Investigating further, she learned of Sderot’s thriving music scene, full of artists turning their experiences about living under siege in a virtually forgotten town into song. 

Entrance to an underground bomb shelter in Sderot. Photo courtesy of Foundation for Documentary Projects

“What was it like for musicians to make music in a war zone?” Bialis wondered. A month later, she was on a plane to Israel. “It was a passion project. I had no funding, but I had to go. It was like a fire under my tush,” she said.  

Bialis spent three weeks interviewing musicians but realized she needed to live there for a while to weave together the kind of story she wanted to tell. 

“Music,” she learned, “is part of their DNA. In that city, music has been a source of joy and pride for the last 30 years. How can you write love songs to a place that kicks you in the head all the time? I went in with fresh eyes and saw the beauty of the place. It’s a place with a lot of soul and has its own kind of magic that comes through, I think, in the movie.”

One of the featured artists is Avi Vaknin, who refused to participate in her film at first. “He was very skeptical. He felt the way Sderot had been portrayed in the Israeli media was very stereotypical and exploitative, showing traumatized, screaming people in a Qassam rocket attack. He didn’t want to have anything to do with that,” Bialis said. “We had to convince him.”

She enlisted Vaknin’s help in finding a place where she could live. “He was also looking for an apartment, and when we found this huge house, I thought, ‘If he was my roommate, I could film him all the time. This is great.’ We started off as friends and connected on a very deep level creatively. He was like my muse. And then it became romantic,” she said.

Vaknin proposed to Bialis in June 2008, inside one of the bomb shelters that are a necessity on every block in Sderot. “No Qassams were falling at the time,” Bialis said. They married that September, and their daughter, Lily, was born in May 2010 in Tel Aviv. The family moved there so Vaknin could pursue wider opportunities — he now runs a recording studio in Tel Aviv, although they visit his clan in Sderot often.

A self-described adventuresome person who doesn’t shy away from challenging environments, Bialis was not fearful living in Sderot at first. “It actually took living there for two years and knowing Avi and his family to understand the terror of it,” she said. 

“A Qassam has fallen on every inch of that place. There was footage that was too gruesome to put in the movie. If it were not for the bomb shelters and alarms, there would be mass casualties.” Once she had a child, she said, “I had the terrifying realization that this is what I’ve got to protect a kid from.” 

Bialis acknowledged that many others, with the means to do so, leave Sderot. 

“But it is complicated because families are large. It’s a very strong root system, and it’s hard for people to extricate themselves,” she said.

For those who stay, living under constant siege has varying effects. “In some ways, it makes people more resilient. Some totally fall apart from it. Some become stronger. It certainly puts your life in perspective,” she said. “It makes you realize what’s important and not important.”

Bialis, a second-generation Angeleno with family roots in Hungary, Germany, Russia and Poland, grew up in Bel Air near Stephen Wise Temple, where she celebrated her bat mitzvah. She lived in Pacific Palisades as a teen before her family moved to Santa Barbara when she was 16.

She has fond memories of Jewish holiday celebrations, Friday night Shabbat dinners and reading about Jewish history. “I feel that being Jewish is almost the defining identity for me. I was interested in making aliyah even before I met Avi,” she said. 

Bialis is Reform and Ashkenazi, and her husband is from a traditional Moroccan-Jewish family, but they find common ground, she said, aware that if it were not for the movie, they’d have never met. “We always felt that it was meant to be that we’re together, and we still do.”

Although she isn’t religious, her Jewish identity is strong. “For me, it’s all about Judaism as a civilization, about values, about family coming together, the rituals our people have done for thousands of years,” she said. “I feel very connected to the land of Israel and the Jewish people in a way that I really can’t describe or explain.”

“Rock in the Red Zone” is currently playing at Jewish film festivals around the country, including a screening Nov. 23 at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills sponsored by the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. 

Bialis said her family will be spending the next 10 months in California while she travels to promote the film. Complicating her journey, however, is that Bialis is now five months pregnant. “It’s a boy,” she said. “I’m so excited. It’s a total blessing, because I’m 42.” 

But as much as she’d love to take time off, she has work to do. “I put eight years of my life into this,” she said of the film. “If I’m not out there making sure it gets into schools and universities and communities in the U.S. and around the world, nobody will.”

When the film screened in Sderot last winter, audiences expressed gratitude to Bialis. “It got a 10-minute standing ovation at the premiere there. Some people said, ‘I can’t believe I live here.’ To see all the events that had happened to the city at once, it was kind of shocking for them,” Bialis said. Others told her, “ ‘You captured the way we feel,’ which was a huge honor. I had gotten it right,” she said.

Elsewhere in Israel, the reaction was surprise, she said. “Wow! We had no idea what Sderot was like and what was going on there,” friends in Tel Aviv told her. 

Bialis hopes to continue to open eyes about Israel and Sderot. “A lot of people don’t know what it’s really like in Israel. There are a lot of stereotypes about it,” she said. “I wanted to introduce people to the life and the people there. There’s something amazing about that in the story, and that’s what I want people to leave with.”

“Rock in the Red Zone” will have a preview screening sponsored by the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival on Nov. 23 at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills. It opens at the Music Hall and the Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino  on Dec. 2.

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