Published Jun 01, 2020Few documentaries come across discussion of a Christmas tree that's politically fraught. In Mayor, director David Osit's sophomore feature, a tree lighting in the Palestinian city of Ramallah is a charged event for the civic administration. For this community living under Israeli occupation, even city hall's mundane decisions can take on a greater significance than they might almost anywhere else in the world.
The film follows Musa Hadid, a second-term mayor committed to having Ramallah run like any other city. His agenda is filled with mayoral greatest hits: he responds to complaints about infrastructure; he tours schools and conjures opinions on the quality of the doors and other amenities therein; he takes breaks to review and revise the city's recent branding efforts. They're working on "WeRamallah" at the filming, which one staff member says should hopefully be read as "we are Ramallah," as the "R" is in a different colour. Hadid never seems completely satisfied with the branding, but who ever is?
Even as the firm, moderately-gregarious Hadid is fretting over a city fountain, the occupation hangs over the situation. Israeli settlements stand around the city and incursions by the Israel Defense Force are talked of and seen continuously. To add more drama, Mayor covers when Donald Trump announces the opening of a United States embassy in Israel in Jerusalem, an act with implications on the recognition of the Palestinian state.
Hadid can't content himself with managing roads and garbage collection in these circumstances. One cut in the movie goes from him talking about "putting out fires" to a literal shot of a fire needing to be put out, as citizens are saying settlers are lighting Ramallah's olive trees aflame. In following his day-to-day, an understanding grows of Hadid's role as mayor, to fulfill his citizens' basic needs while also advocating for their basic dignity.
In one moment, he turns to the camera and asks the director if America knows what's going on in Palestine. The director gives a non-committal answer. The moment stands out, as it's the only time anyone addresses the filmmakers. Everywhere else, Mayor is following Hadid, in public appearances, at home, in private meetings, and at city council.
For a politician who is specific about his messaging at all times, he grants the filmmakers a high level of access. In the smallest decisions, he's being clear and particular, giving the sense that he knows how much impact his action's have. In turn, the filmmakers bring a keen eye for how people see Hadid.
It would be hard not to develop warmth for Hadid, a fatherly leader who does as much as he feels he can within the limits of his role. The film recognizes the protest movement in the city and doesn't paint Hadid as a revolutionary or as someone out to explicitly topple systems. Through the camera's observation, though, his work becomes a political performance of fundamental decency in the face of oppression. In the face of restricted movement and the threat of violence, he continues the work of looking after his people, seeing to their needs and stumping for a new sewage plant.
The work he needs to put in, the callous and cavalier attitudes of the Israel Defense Forces towards Palestinians, and the conditions under which the people of Ramallah have to live flow back to Hadid's question of the director. Does the world know what's going on? The mayor sees this as part of his role, of building awareness of a suffering people all while keeping the city fountain working.
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