For politicians, a statement like, “Our goal is to provide municipal services first,” isn’t a call to action. Not much in David Osit’s documentary “Mayor” is. But when Musa Hadid, the mayor of the West Bank city of Ramallah, delivers those words during a meeting about Donald Trump’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, he delivers those prosaic words with a surprisingly inspirational tone. He responds to other city officials who want to turn the town’s Christmas tree into an anti-Trump political statement. While soft-spoken to a fault, Hadid is emphatic about the need to focus on his job. He has his opinions about Trump. That is an international condition, after all. But deep down, he is primarily concerned with ensuring that Ramallah is a functioning municipality.
As a purposeful push-back against the cliches of Israel-Palestinian conflict coverage, “Mayor” succeeds to a degree. Osit intentionally loads the film with serene montages of city life that have nothing to do with the occupation, war, or terrorism. Instead, we see Parisian-style cafes, streets strung with holiday lights, a strobe-lit nightclub, a music-synchronized water fountain that looks like a mini-Bellagio, a knockoff coffee shop called Stars and Bucks, a meeting about municipal branding, and what appears to be a generally prosperous and quiet middle-class city where Christians like Hadid celebrate their holidays with a family-friendly tackiness that will feel very familiar to Western audiences. A delightful segment on an over-the-top Christmas tree-lighting bash in the town square featuring fireworks, flash mobs, and Santas rappelling up walls like jolly ninjas feels like a transmission from a different planet than that shown in most documentaries on the West Bank.
Osit does not look past the city’s problems. Under military occupation by Israel, Hadid and Ramallah’s residents have their work cut out with little outside aid and significant financial pressures. All the usual urban issues are compounded by the realities of the checkpoints, security walls, encroaching Israeli settlements (which some residents claim are polluting the groundwater and burning down their olive trees), and constant raids. A problem with the sewage lines cannot be fixed because the trucks cannot get through for security reasons.
When the embassy’s move is announced in December 2017, Osit follows Hadid out into the city. They drive toward the clouds of smoke and crowds (“looks like a Barcelona match up there,” Hadid mutters) to see the dance of protestors and soldiers, rocks and tear gas. Hadid registers less concern about the embassy’s geopolitical effects than about the damage that the protests and crackdowns could have on Ramallah. But as the movie follows Osit in the months afterward as the expected marches turn out to be less intense than expected, his attitude shifts from worry (“we’re doomed”) to pragmatic indifference (“it’s happening whether we freak out or not”). Life, and the city, must go on.
Given his job and civil engineering background, Hadid’s day-to-day duties are not, surprisingly, about the nit and grit of city management—seeing a dumpster somebody had set ablaze, likely in protest, his first thought is calling the fire department. But the unsettled tensions of the frozen peace process are ever-present. Meeting with a German delegation, he expresses frustration over what sounds to him as yet another symbolic meeting of pro-peace Israelis and Palestinians that will lead nowhere. Osit tags along in a short section showing Hadid at various international locations speaking about the city’s problems and looking somewhat forlorn over the chances that anybody is truly listening to him. In a climactic section where Hadid is stuck in City Hall as Israeli soldiers execute a raid across the street and engage in the usual street-level exchange (tear gas from them, rocks from the locals), he is stolidly resilient. Still, he seems somewhat at a loss for what to do.
Chummy and likable, Hadid has a dad-level affinity for technology (“you think I know how to do that?” he responds incredulously when asked to livestream on Facebook) and a head-down dutifulness, which all likely helps feed into his street-level popularity in Ramallah. But while Osit’s hanging-back style allows viewers to see Hadid in his natural element as a head-down bureaucrat trying to do right by people, it keeps the movie from exploring further. Unlike the year’s other municipal documentaries—”City Hall,” “City So Real,” and “Hamtramck, USA”—“Mayor” stays almost entirely out of the push and pull of electoral politics, not to mention what it means to be a Christian leader in a city with such a large Muslim population. A more actively investigative approach might have produced a portrait with greater nuance and understanding, particularly given the suggestion made here that Hadid could potentially leverage his popularity into a more significant role in the Palestinian government.
Despite hanging back at times too much for its own good, “Mayor” remains a fascinating portrait of what city politics look like under extreme conditions. Trump might not always matter in the end. But sewage certainly does. [B]