2020, NR, 89 min. Directed by David Osit.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Dec. 4, 2020
Musa Hadid is like any mayor of any midsize city. It's not a well-paid job, there are a lot of meetings of little substance, and he's more famous than he is influential. He's a former civil engineer who sort of backed into local politics, and now he sits in, befuddled, in conference rooms discussing city branding.
What makes Hadid more than a regular local politician, and adds weight to observational documentary Mayor, is where he is mayor of: The city of Ramallah, the de facto capital of the Palestinian National Authority.
It would be easy for Mayor to lean into didactic drama, but what makes it so fascinating is that it doesn't just reiterate the vision of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that we expect: occupation, strike, counterstrike, human rights abuses. It's the day-to-day, nuts-and-bolts story of life in Palestine, but even then not the same story of life in camps that have dominated the conversation. Ramallah looks like a cool little college town, a historic city with a burgeoning economy and fun nightlife. Hadid is the guy who spends his time worrying about ill-fitting doors at the local college, and the specifics of how the Santas will descend during the Christmas tree lighting. But how can you get the free wi-fi up when your neighbors keep firing teargas at schoolkids?
Director David Osit returns to the subject of Muslim-Christian relations, previously viewed through the topic of Manhattan's Sharif El-Gamal community center in his 2010 short documentary "Building Babel" (the difference this time being that Palestine is integrated, and Hadid himself is Christian – and clearly frustrated about his faith being used as a prop by American politicians scoring points with Evangelicals). Much as with the story of the "Ground Zero Mosque," his film is about coexistence thrown into chaos by needless controversy. The turning point in Mayor is an off-screen event: President Trump's pointless, contentious, and pandering 2017 decision to announce that the U.S. will treat Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. As a result of protests against emboldened Israeli forces, Ramallah is on fire, and Hadid is in charge of finding the right size of fire hose.
While understated and deeply personal, Mayor cannot avoid the current conflagration in the region. It doesn't explicitly take sides: not that it needs to, since Hadid's quest for a normal life is the most heroic position imaginable. Much as with a visit from Prince William, he astutely uses this film to present the Ramallah that is so often ignored. If only he could spend more time working on tourism brochures than thanking maintenance workers for cleaning up after the latest Israeli army break-in.
Mayor is available as a Virtual Cinema release.