How the Israeli Desert Town of Sderot Became a Hotbed for Film and Music

Robby Elmaliah

June's Cinema South International Film Festival and the documentary 'Rock in the Red Zone' are bringing attention to a thriving scene.

Historically, the Israeli city of Sderot has mostly been known for bordering the Gaza Strip, where it has sustained rocket attacks for the better part of 14 years. But during that time, it's also seen a thriving film and music scene emerge.

From June 7 through 11, the southern Negev desert town once again hosted the Cinema South International Film Festival, held annually since 2002 and hosted by Sderot’s Sapir College. The festival showcases feature films, documentaries and select international efforts, as well as introduces new local filmmakers.

The festival concluded Thursday with the closing night premiere of Encirclements (Hakafot) starring Lior Ashkenazi (Late Wedding), directed and written by Lee Gilat, who presented the script for the film at the 2013 Berlinale. One of this year’s guests was Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa, whose last three films since 2010 — My Joy, In the Fog and Maidan — were all featured at the Cannes Film Festival.

Keeping the festival alive during turbulent times has proven a challenge the organizers relish as the annual event’s existence parallels the city’s harsh reality of being in the line of fire — literally (rocket attacks by neighboring Hamas are de rigueur, and all of the town's residents are familiar with the bomb shelter protocol signaled by air sirens). Yet the aim of focusing on culture and breaking ground with Sapir’s new voices stands above all.

"Creating a film festival is difficult even before the given security tension and political situation of Israel, but our festival’s reputation from recent years allows holding it every year despite the difficulties," says Professor Avner Fainguelerent, creator and founder of the festival who heads the school of audio and visual arts at Sapir College.

"Last year, for example, many shoots of students' final films had to be postponed until after Operation Protective Edge," he adds, referencing the military action of 2014. "When there is tension, academic routine gets interrupted, but luckily mundane routine exceeds times of emergency. Sderot is a city where culture is a central element, and cinema is the upcoming media to excel, which to me comes naturally after the music scene it brought out to Israeli culture has made a significant mark."

Indeed, over the past two decades Sderot — identified as a melting pot town of Jewish North-African immigrants — has emerged as a hotbed of musical talent, laying claim to such acts as Knesiyat Hasekhel, Sfatayim, Shlomo Bar and Teapacks, headed by Israeli cultural icon Kobi Oz. All infuse their ancestors’ origins and beats into their rock sound.

The city’s dominance in Israel’s music landscape against all security tensions is the subject of U.S.-born Israeli filmmaker Laura Bialis documentary Rock in the Red Zone, which will be shown at U.S. festivals starting July and released theatrically around November.

“Sderot constantly surprised me,” says Bialis, an MFA graduate from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. “In interviews many of the musicians and I discussed it: What was the magic formula? Why Sderot, of all places? Knesiyat Hasekhel talked about the boredom — they turned to music because there was nothing else to do. Shimon Adaf, a famous Israeli poet from Sderot, says you can hear the sound of dust and the Sderot atmosphere in their songs. I found that there was this inspiration, that some of the artists were using their music and lyrics as a sort of therapy of self-expression.”

Bialis ended her filmmaking journey to Sderot not only with falling in love with the town and its story, but also with a local artist.

“I came to Sderot to make a film about music in a war zone, but I never expected to fall in love with the place, and in the end I also fell in love with one of the rock musicians I was filming — Avi Vaknin,” she recounts. “I had chosen him as one of the musicians to focus on specifically. He was working with kids in a bomb shelter turned music rehearsal space called Sderock, helping them use their songs as a way to deal with their trauma. The brilliant thing about it was that others could find their own truth for each of these songs that had nothing to do with Sderot, or life in a war zone. The emotions conveyed were simply full of a personal truth that others were able to relate to and make them their own."