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'Rock in the Red Zone' revels in an Israeli underground music scene

'Rock in the Red Zone' revels in an Israeli underground music scene
Laura Bialis and Avi Vaknin with their daughter in a photo from the movie "Rock In the Red Zone." (Foundation for Documentary Proje)

On the west end of the Negev desert bordering the Gaza Strip, a vibrant and influential music scene thrives in Sderot, Israel, amid bombardment by Hamas. But in the documentary "Rock in the Red Zone," it's the brutal reality of life in the region that takes center stage.

The city's population of about 20,000 is primarily composed of Jews who have migrated from countries such as Morocco, Tunisia and Ethiopia to reach Israel, where they are consigned to an impoverished shantytown and perpetually neglected by the government. Sderot's exotic sonic influences and political disaffection together inform a unique sound that has come to redefine Israeli pop.
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American documentarian Laura Bialis discovered that the music there is literally underground, as the artists rehearse, practice, teach and hang out in a former bomb shelter. Such structures are a part of daily life; a citywide PA system warns of incoming rockets and advises residents to take cover.

In terms of Sderot's music scene, there's barely enough material here to fill one interesting "60 Minutes" segment. Through a first-person narration, Bialis makes much of the film about herself. Her account certainly turns the daily travails of living in Sderot into something tangible for viewers. But at the same time, her life-experience narrative proves a distraction and a disservice to the promise of the film's title.

Eventually, the filmmaker announces her urge to return to Sderot and move in with one of her subjects, Avi Vaknin. The full disclosure that Vaknin would ultimately become Bialis' husband arrives much too late. At that point, it's no longer clear whether the filmmaker got sidetracked and fell in love or the documentary is simply the byproduct of some home movies filmed under extraordinary circumstances.

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