The Amazing Music Scene You Have Never Heard Of Is In The "Seattle Of Israel"

At first glance, the small desert town of Sderot, Israel, has almost nothing in common with Seattle, the rainy U.S. city that gave birth to grunge music and is more than 6,000 miles across the globe.

Sderot is know to some as the "Bomb Shelter Capital of the World." The town of about 24,000 has for years been hit by rocket and mortar attacks from the neighboring Gaza Strip.

But, as Laura Bialis, an Israeli filmmaker who grew up in California, discovered, there is far more to Sderot than the headlines suggest. The city has long been home to a thriving music scene that blends cultures and sounds from North Africa and the Middle East.

"I heard about this town in southern Israel that had been targeted for, at that point, like, seven years of rocket attacks," she said. "When I started searching for information about the town, I found out it was like a Seattle or Liverpool of Israel. It produced all these great rock bands. It made a significant impact on Israeli culture."

Bialis traveled to Sderot to hear more for herself. The result is Rock in the Red Zone, a new critically acclaimed documentary that explores how music fosters strength and unity in a community dealing with the consequences of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For Bialis, the experience was so powerful that she decided to move to Sderot permanently.

Refinery29 spoke with Bialis to learn more about the power of music, peaceful solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and her unforgettable journey in Sderot. Click through to hear her answers and see photos that capture the impact music has on the community. The film, which opened in New York last month, hits theaters in Los Angeles this week. For more information, visit the Rock in the Red Zone website.

Opener: Photographed by Jennifer Avello.
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Photo: Courtesy of Noam Teich.
Your film talks about how Sderot is made up of people who emigrated from North Africa and the Middle East. Is Israeli culture and music, in a way, appropriated from these regions?
“I think one of the most interesting things about Israeli culture is that it’s a melting pot of cultures. It’s mixed with all these different elements. One of the fascinating parts of the story is that the original immigrants, to this town called Sderot, were basically Middle Eastern. They were from North Africa and the Middle East. They had specific sounds that they brought with them. We’re not talking about many, many years ago. We’re talking about the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. I think at the time what was cool in Israel and rock was mainstream music, which was very Western. Some of the more Middle Eastern sounds were not really considered ‘cool’ [at the time]. They were considered primitive or not included.”
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Photo: Courtesy of Foundation for Documentary Projects & Noam Teich.
Do you think music can offer some peace and stability in the Middle East?
“I think it can. First of all, I focus on musicians that are specifically in the town of Sderot. It doesn't really focus on any crime or former activities, but I think what was so amazing about the musicians I followed was that their music was an outlet for them. You're dealing with a town where a huge proportion of the population has suffered from some sort of PTSD.

“It’s estimated that some 70% of the kids there have PTSD — and to have music as a goal, to watch the teenagers take their choir rehearsal, their band rehearsal, some performance they were getting ready for, or recording an album really seriously to the point it gave them something to look forward to and something to focus says a lot. I saw those kids really thrive from having this outlet of music, this goal and desire to succeed from something they create. I think that helps the situation. It helps their individual psychological well-being.

“What I want to say is that there are amazing circumstances where citizens are reaching out to each other across the border. It's totally not political. It’s non-organizational. A citizen is a citizen. Those are amazing instances, and some cases like with the West Bank, there’s even musicians that work together with Israelis. In the case in Sderot, unfortunately, it’s right near Gaza. It’s a different situation, for the two sides are very separated. It would be really hard to have that collaboration.”
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Photo: Courtesy of Foundation for Documentary Projects.
Sderot is really close to the Gaza Strip. Did you run into any issues with the making of the film?
“They have this warning system — they give you 15 seconds to run into a bombing shelter. At the beginning, I had this false sense of security that I wouldn’t get hurt. As I started living there, it did become scary. I had to deal with it, just like everyone else. It didn’t make it more difficult to film, you know, it was just part of what we were dealing with all the time.”
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Photo: Courtesy of Foundation for Documentary Projects.
Your film showed a Hamas rocket attack in Sderot and the reactions from the subjects of your film. Do you think you portrayed Palestinians fairly in Rock in the Red Zone?
“I think what my film shows is that people outside of Israel — who don’t know what it’s like firsthand to be there — may come to their own conclusions about Israelis and what they think. It’s usually much more complex than what you can imagine. What I think I was trying to do is to show how there’s so many different opinions and so many different viewpoints.

“But there are a lot of people — I would say a huge part of the population — who are really apathetic with what’s happening to people in Gaza and in Palestine. Some also feel that both sides are victims of something, are victims of this unsolved situation, are victims of extremism. I think that’s in general, amongst Israelis, but I can’t speak for all of them.

“There’s a piece in my film, where they say, ‘I’m sure the people — the normal people — there just want to live their normal life in peace.’ I think the fact is that there’s empathy, the fact people in Israel are not militant. I’ve had people watch the film and say, ‘I thought Israelis were really militant.’ You know what? They don’t know Israelis. They have never been there. They read it in the newspaper. My goal was for my audience, on the ground, in a place like Sderot, where people are getting attacked, is to show they still have compassion.”
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Photo: Courtesy of Tami Porath Photography.
What do you hope people take away from watching Rock in the Red Zone?
“First, I wanted to uncover an untold story. A lot of people came up to me after the film, and say, ‘I had no idea that this was what life was like in that part of Israel.’ So, a part of me wants to show this one place. I wanted to show what was happening there, and what has been happening there, kind of raising awareness, and make people think about that….

“The other thing is that there’s something incredibly inspiring there. There’s a sense of resilience. The desire to keep living, the desire to keep creating, the desire to keep doing positive things for the world, so that even dealing with terrorist people, it’s very Israeli to keep going on, to try to keep living — and not to just keep living by surviving, but also [living] emotionally and spiritually.

“At the end of the film, we’re sitting in a cafe. Then a bomb falls right outside the cafe, and there are a lot of journalists that run outside. And the person I’m joining at the cafe just continues to order dinner. For me, it was just symbolic, because that’s what it's like to live in Israel. You know you just have to keep going. There’s something very beautiful in that.”
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