How Israel Fell Into a Trance

The trance music party scene has become increasingly popular in Israel among those seeking to escape the country's hectic reality. A new docuseries examines how the phenomenon provides a therapeutic space

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An Israeli at a local trance party. 'Total freedom to do what you want as long as you aren’t hurting anyone else.'
An Israeli at a local trance party. 'Total freedom to do what you want as long as you aren’t hurting anyone else.'Credit: Haim Solomon, courtesy of yes Docu
Nitzan Pincu
Nitzan Pincu

“My vision is that people watch the series and go out to dance in nature. Especially these days. To be happy with people that you love, flooded by love, is the greatest therapy for Israel and the entire world; it’s more important than any demonstration or discussion.” That’s filmmaker and video editor Roee Finzi’s ideology behind the new documentary series he directed, “Free People,” about the Israeli trance music culture, which is airing this week on Yes Docu and is available for viewing on Yes VOD.

In the series’ three episodes, Finzi sketches out the timeline of the Israeli trance parties scene and shows how it was influenced by, and interacts with, the Zionist dream. Bus bombings, collapsing governments, inflation, migration, and the murder of a prime minister – the series follows the growth of this musical counterculture on the background of the familiar, harsh and violent Israeli reality.

“It’s like [being back in] the ‘Tower and Stockade’ days,” says Asher Haviv, organizer of the “Give Trance a Chance” protests, in one of the episodes, referring to an operation to establish Jewish settlements in the pre־state period. The comparison touches on the underground way young aficionados of the genre in Israel organized parties in the 1990s, creating something from nothing in remote areas, tapping into their military experience, simply so they could dance to the multilayered and often repetitive electronic music that, per its name, almost mesmerizes participants.

The first episode describes how trance culture developed in Israel before the advent of internet and cable television. Members of the duo Astral Projection, pioneers of the genre in Israel who were very successful abroad too, share how they were influenced by New Wave groups like Yazoo and Depeche Mode, that brought electronic music into the mainstream. They also drew inspiration from local New Wave bands like The Click and Minimal Compact, which created music that contains revelations, with a gradual buildup of tension. Australian musician Raja Ram, one of the fathers of psychedelic trance, also appears in the episode, and describes his astonishment at the fact that many of the leading artists in the genre, including Ace Ventura, Captain Hook, Vini Vici, Astrix, Infected Mushroom and many others – are Israeli.

An Israeli trance party. 'If I don’t dance in nature once every couple of months, other things, that are ostensibly the most important, can’t happen.'Credit: Haim Solomon, courtesy of yes Docu

In the guise of fighting drugs

Despite these successes, longtime trance enthusiasts have had to struggle to maintain the culture in the face of Israeli law enforcement. Their battles to openly hold trance festivals reached the Knesset and led to demonstrations. The “Give Trance a Chance” event, which took place in 1998 at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, was one of the community’s flagship events at which it protested what it described as discrimination, the systematic shutdown of parties, and government and police persecution under the cover of the war on drugs, which were consumed at these parties.

Almost two decades later, cancelling trance parties and festivals reached another peak. In June 2019 hundreds protested at Rabin Square against the police decision to cancel the three-day Doof festival at Hamat Gader. Police claimed a concern over the mass consumption of drugs, and canceled other festivals as well, among them Midburn and Shushan. The last episode in the series focuses closely on the struggles of producers against bureaucratic and police obstacles that have not stopped. Nevertheless, according to Finzi, trance parties are taking place all the time. “There will always be trance parties here. You can’t stop it, even if it’s 10 people dancing in a parking lot,” he said.

Finzi, 40, is married with two daughters, whom he takes to family-friendly trance festivals. He feels it’s important for his daughters “to identify the beat from their gut, so that they frequently see people who are happy, dressed up,” he says. Trance first entered his life when he left the army and went to Eilat. There he joined what he calls “the trance tribe,” a world he defines as, “Something sublime and complex, emotionally and spiritually. Trance touches the strings of my soul at the deepest level. It’s important that they relate to it seriously. It’s not just marginal.”

An Israeli trance party, from the new docu series 'Free People.'Credit: yes Docu

Work on the series took five years, during which Finzi tried to find a broadcast outlet or foundation that would support the project. The narrative foundation for the series is archival material collected by longtime trance DJ “Oforia,” Ofer Dikovsky, and trance party producer and businessman Alon Dotan. The materials were filmed during the 1990s by students intending to produce a documentary that never was made.

“The recordings sat in a storeroom for 20 years and no one touched them,” says Finzi. “The moment I saw the material I realized it was gold.”

Dancing to forget torture

Ilan Factor, a teacher and party producer, tells in the series about an incident he remembers from his military service, in which, he says, he and others watched IDF soldiers torture men in the Jabaliya refugee camp, and the offenders suffered no consequences or punishment. “We would dance and go crazy, doing everything just to forget that,” he says.

But dancing, says Finzi, isn’t just escapism; it’s a therapeutic space for processing trauma. “Trance parties are a therapeutic space in every way,” he says. “I’m in a meditative state, close my eyes, moving, connecting to the vibe, to the beat. People think it’s superficial and an escape. It’s not an escape, it’s the essence. For me it’s one of the top three things in my life and the rest are derivatives of it. If I don’t dance in nature once every couple of months, other things, that are ostensibly the most important, can’t happen. It’s a spiritual and almost religious process, with the religion being the connection to yourself, with trance being the means.”

Filmmaker and video editor Roee Finzi.Credit: Moti Milrod

One of the values of this culture, according to Finzi and those interviewed in the series, is the desire for freedom. “Those who established this state were fleeing from horrors in every corner of the world, and their most fervent wish was to find a place where they could be free,” he says. “Not necessarily the freedom to be Jews, but to be who they were, without people pointing at them in the street. That’s the motivation, to be a people.”

“Who is a free person?” Finzi says, when asked. “I’m not claiming to have the answer. But a free person can dance in nature if they wants to. Total freedom to do what you want as long as you aren’t hurting anyone else. To be connected to the deepest levels of myself.”

Some seeking that sense of freedom and release often achieve them at trance parties by using illegal substances. These enhance the meditative state and allow the revelers to get through long hours of dancing – but sometimes they make their users sick.

In 2018, two partygoers, aged 27 and 55, overdosed and died during the Neverland festival held near Kibbutz Lehavot Habashan. In 2000, Ariel Yoav Zafrir, 19, died from drugs at a nature party.

A scene from the docuseries 'Free People.' Some seeking that sense of freedom and release often achieve them at trance parties by using illegal substances.Credit: Haim Solomon, courtesy of yes Docu

Nowadays trance party organizers seem keener to the need to provide assistance to revelers in distress. The volunteer project Safe Harbor, for example, sets up relaxation and treatment areas to deal with extreme situations at nature parties and festivals.

Finzi is aware of the immediate association people make between the trance scene and drugs. “The story they tell us about trance is that we’ll take drugs, go crazy and die. There are unpleasant aspects to trance, freedom that takes people to bad places, but that’s not the essence,” he says.

In this context, Finzi recalls the 2000 film, “Psychedelic Zion,” by Isri Halpern, which was a nominee for the Ophir Prize. It featured three young people who went all the way to the Supreme Court in their battle to hold trance parties. “The film introduced people to the culture and broke a glass ceiling,” Finzi says. “This contrasts with today, when there’s trance at every wedding and in every store. But the film fell into cliches that in retrospect hurt the trance culture, when people speak of it only in the context of drugs and extreme characters.”

Very few women were interviewed in the series. Was it difficult to find women to interview? “Very,” says Finzi. “I looked for women who knew how to speak about it and who live it and I didn’t really find any. Trance is not masculine, it’s human. We were not an orderly production and there was no budget for research. Looking back, I should have made more of an effort. Next season.”

Partygoers from a scene from the docuseries 'Free People.' Credit: Haim Solomon, courtesy of yes Docu

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