'Mayor': Film Review

Courtesy of Rosewater Pictures, Rise Films
A dedicated politician tries to run one of the toughest towns on Earth.

Director David Osit’s fly-on-the-wall portrait of the mayor of Ramallah premiered at the True/False Film Festival.

Being a mayor is no walk in the park, but when you’re the mayor of one of the most contested pieces of geography in modern history, the job can take on near-biblical proportions. And yet, what’s most impressive about Musa Hadid, who has presided over the de facto Palestinian capital of Ramallah since 2012 and is also the subject of David Osit’s engrossing new documentary Mayor, is how calmly and pragmatically he goes about his business, concerned as much about park benches, sewage treatment and other routine municipal details as he is about the very future of his people.

Shot during the 2017 holiday season, when Ramallah, which has a minority Christian population of roughly 25 percent (this includes Hadid himself), was preparing for the festivities just as the Trump administration controversially announced it would be moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Mayor is a study in politics both micro and macro, showing what happens when the two come fatefully crashing together.

Premiering at the True/False Film Fest in Missouri, followed by a screening at CPH:DOX in Denmark, this is the kind of perceptive and, despite the dire incidents depicted, heartening portrait that could find a home on streaming services. 

“Every year, same chaos, same story,” the fifty-something Hadid admits at one particularly tough moment, when soldiers from the IDF have swarmed his city, going door-to-door to root out protesters and surveillance cameras in a sweeping demonstration of their occupational might. And yet, until that happens, much of what we see in Ramallah resembles the quotidian of any other mid-sized capital, with its garbage collection issues, Christmas tree lighting plans, cafés, fast-food joints and other things one doesn’t necessarily associate with life in the Palestinian territories (which, as an opening title card explains, have been occupied by Israel since 1967).

Indeed, the paradox of Ramallah is that it wants to be like other cities but cannot. Hemmed in by illegal Israeli settlements, dependent on Israeli approval for anything it undertakes and just a stone’s throw away from an extremely divided Jerusalem, it has become one of the major epicenters of the Middle Eastern crisis, subject to major urban unrest whenever the conflict flares up. Thus, while Hadid struggles to get a brand-new Bellagio-style fountain erected in front of the Ramallah City Hall building, he has to face pro-Palestinian rioters pummeling it with stones as they try to thwart Israeli soldiers. Not all mayors have to step away from windows to avoid stray bullets or run for cover from tear gas, but this seems to be part of Hadid’s daily grind.

And yet he manages to maintain an impressive level of sang-froid, and to harness an inexhaustible amount of energy, in his quest to make Ramallah a nice place to live. His team’s rather corny attempts at urban branding through the logo WeRamallah drive Hadid to question the effectiveness of such marketing campaigns, which he doesn’t dismiss so much as try to make more meaningful to the outside world. (“We can’t find the appropriate tone to convey things to people,” he says time and again.) And he seems to worry about the smallest things, like the quality of doors at a local elementary school, or how exactly a team of Santa Clauses will descend from suspended ropes down the facades of buildings during the tree-lighting ceremony.

It’s possible that Osit’s portrait of Hadid, who is only ever shown in a favorable light, is a bit one-sided. After all, the latter is an elected official trying to stay in power, and, as Mark Twain famously wrote, “Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason.” (A quick Google search on Hadid yields a Times of Israel article from January 2019 stating that Palestinian authorities sentenced him to three months in prison for tax collection fraud. Hadid appealed the charges, which were later dropped by a judge.)

But as its title declares, Mayor is less a portrait of the man than of the position — specifically, what that position entails in a city under siege. And although Hadid needs to constantly wheel and deal around town to get the job done, in terms of the larger regional conflict he remains categorical: “It’s about dignity. And when it comes to dignity, I think it’s something non-negotiable.”

Production companies: Rosewater Pictures, Rise Films
Cast: Musa Hadid
Director-producer-cinematographer: David Osit
Executive producers: Maxyne Franklin, Teddy Leifer
Editors: David Osit, Eric Daniel Metzgar
Composers: Geinoh Yamashirogumi, Toru Takemitsu, Sam Thompson, David Osit
Venue: True/False Film Festival

In Arabic, English
89 minutes