Rock in the Red Zone


The beauty of music is that it endures no matter the circumstances.

(2014) Documentary (The Orchard) Avi Vaknin, Laura Bialis, Robby Elmaliah, Kubi Oz, Micha Biton, Haim Uliel, Yoav Kutner, Noah Badein, Itai Avitan, Hagit Yaso, Lidor, Yossi Klein Haleui, Vishayahu Maso, Dr. Adrianna Katz. Directed by Laura Bialis

 

It is sometimes in these chaotic times a sad fact that the American left often wags its collective fingers at Israel for their treatment of Palestinians on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. There are plenty of really good documentaries that cover this subject. There aren’t many however that look closely at everyday Israelis coping with the bombs that are sent over on makeshift rockets called Qassams. Rock in the Red Zone has the distinction of being one of the very few.

Bialis became fascinated with Sderot, a small town of 20,000 on the western edge of the Negev desert that is subject to daily rocket attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah. Citizens get 15 seconds warning from a system called Red Alert; when the alarms go off, they drop what they’re doing, leaving their cars in the middle of the road and seek shelter at bomb shelters throughout the town and environs. They leave their windows open so that they can hear the warnings and escape in time; one of the city’s residents, musician Avi Vaknin remarks that the greatest fatalities occur when those who aren’t used to the way of life in Sderot don’t hear the warning sirens and continue driving on their merry way, unaware that death is rocketing at them from the nearby Gaza strip.

A two week stay made such an indelible mark on filmmaker Bialis that she chose to return for a lengthier stay to find out more ostensibly about the underground music scene (literally; much of the rehearsal and performance takes place in underground bunkers and converted bomb shelters). She moves in with Vaknin who introduces her to the music scene in Sderot which is surprisingly fertile; the band Teapacs which represented Israel in the Eurovision song contest are from there (their lead singer Kubi Oz speaks fondly of his embattled home town). More recently, the winner of Israel’s version of America’s Got Talent came from there.

Most of the residents come from Morocco, Tunisia and Ethiopia; Jews who found their way to Israel following World War II and were discriminated against by the European-based Jews who essentially founded the country. The music of those areas mixed with western Rock and Roll, blues, Klezmer and other musical forms. Much of the music has the kind of immediacy that comes from not knowing when you wake up in the morning if you were going to make it to see the sunset. It’s often quite poignant and very often compelling.

The major misstep that is made by the film is well into it when it becomes obvious that Avi and Laura have become romantically involved. From then on the movie becomes more about their relationship and essentially morphs into a home movie, complete with wedding footage. Bialis is a top-notch filmmaker but she breaks one of the cardinal rules of documentary filmmaking: don’t become the story. When Bialis starts to become the story, the movie falls apart.

That’s a shame too because up until then the movie is very compelling; the courage of the people of Sderot who are almost as angry at their own government for essentially ignoring their plight than they are at the Palestinians doing the bombardment. Even with all the stress and trauma (and make no mistake, every single resident of the town suffers from PTSD bar none – one of the most poignant moments is a woman dissolving into a shaking, shuddering mess during an attack) they find the humanity within them to keep soldiering on, living their lives almost in defiance of those who would seek to disrupt them. You can see the joy in their eyes when a concerted effort of activists brings thousands of ordinary Israelis to downtown Sderot to shop and dine. When you live on the razor’s edge, everything becomes magnified.

When the film concentrates on that message, the movie soars. When it becomes a love letter from the director to her husband, it stumbles. I don’t doubt the depth of her passion for her man nor his for her but it really undermines all the really good work she does up until that point. This is just one example of what happens when the heart rules the mind.

REASONS TO GO: The story is a tribute to everyday courage. The music is surprisingly diverse and effective.
REASONS TO STAY: The film loses focus during the final third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, disturbing images of the aftermath of the bombings as well as injured children and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is loosely based on the evacuation of Chinese citizens from the port town of Aden during the Yemen Civil War of March 2015.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Radial
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: No One Knows About Persian Cats
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Beast Stalker

Cairo Time


Cairo Time

Love; as timeless as the pyramids.

(2009) Romance (IFC) Patricia Clarkson, Alexander Siddig, Elena Anaya, Tom McCamus, Amina Annabi, Andrew Cullen, Mona Hala, Fadia Nadda. Directed by Ruba Nadda

The allure of a foreign city, particularly one whose culture is very different from our own, beckons to many of us in an insistent way. Who hasn’t daydreamed of being adrift in an exotic city, swept away by romance?

Juliette (Clarkson) is a fashion magazine editor who arrives in Cairo expecting to meet her husband, a U.N. worker. Unfortunately, he’s been detained by trouble on the Gaza Strip and sends his friend Tariq (Siddig) to fetch her at the airport and look after her while he’s away.

Tariq does show Juliette around, although not to the pyramids which she is saving for Mark (McCamus), her husband. However she is made aware of the sweet intoxication that is Cairo – sunset boat rides on the Nile, shopping in open air bazaars, dancing at Egyptian weddings, playing chess in a coffee house – mostly with Tariq at her side.

As the day pile up and Mark is still a no-show, Juliette’s loneliness becomes palpable and she is drawn by the handsome and elegant Tariq. She becomes enamored of the music of Umm Kulthum which she runs into in several places in Cairo. This all leads her to the realization that she is attracted to a man who isn’t her husband. Is it her loneliness that drives her, or is it simply Cairo, seducing Juliette with its romance and charm?

At the 2009 Toronto Film Festival, this film won the award for Best Canadian Film at the event, which may surprise given its setting in Egypt. Director Ruba Nadda visited Cairo as a young girl and the impressions were indelible; she was moved to make this film years later, and it’s certainly very kind to the Egyptian capital. Cinematographer Luc Montpellier delivers breathtaking images of the capital with the Pyramids towering majestically in the distance, as well as intimate shots of crowded Cairo streets. I’m sure the Cairo Tourist Board has the warm fuzzies for this film.

Nadda’s smartest move was casting Clarkson and Siddig. Clarkson is an actress who often gets overlooked when the discussion of great actresses of our generation is underway, but she is certainly that. She is expressive without saying a word, relying on her face and her eyes to get across information pages of dialogue never could.

She plays Juliette with the courtliness and elegance of a Southern belle, minus the accent. One would say the performance is mannered, but Juliette is like many refined women of my age and older – possessed of an inner grace and charm that comes from manners and wisdom. Yet, she is lonely, the long hours separated from her husband taking their toll. Her children are grown, her job consumes her and she can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something more to life.

Into this mix comes Tariq and Siddig is perfectly cast in the role. Handsome and elegant, he carries himself with the exotic romantic charm of Omar Sharif mixed with the honesty and directness of Gregory Peck. As you can tell by my comparisons, this is an old school performance of the highest order. The two make a wonderful couple, dancing around a growing attraction that to Nadda’s credit doesn’t happen suddenly, but subtly over a period of time. It grows organically and becomes realistic in that sense.

However, the plot is paper-thin and there isn’t much substance here. This is a romance novel on film in many ways, not that there’s anything wrong with that. However, the pacing is so languid and the mood so gentle that the movie seems to lack passion, which I’m a bit ambivalent about. On the one hand, I think it works better that Juliette and Tariq are not leaping into bed and exchanging smoldering looks; on the other hand, the movie doesn’t affect you as strongly because of it. It’s a bit of a Catch-22, but I think in the long run Nadda made the right choice; there are plenty of movies out there with all the passion you could want.

I loved the charm of this movie and the beauty of its cinematography. It’s all the more poignant now, given events in Cairo going on as this is being published. I’m not sure the Cairo of this movie will exist once events are played out but something tells me that it will; a city that has seen the rise and fall of Pharaohs, the coming and going of the British will be around long after all of us are gone. But even if Cairo is inevitably changed, a fleeting moment of its allure is captured here for all time.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautiful Egyptian vistas capture the romance of Cairo but also the traffic and noise of a major metropolis. Clarkson elevates every movie she does.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This is a film as wispy as gossamer with little substance.

FAMILY VALUES: There are elements of marital infidelity and some smoking and drinking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Siddig is playing an Egyptian, he is actually from the Sudan, born of an English mother. He is best known as Dr. Julian Bashir on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are four short films by director Ruba Nadda, as well as a Q&A session from the film’s screening at the Toronto Film Festival.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2M on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this probably broke even or thereabouts.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Black Swan