In the opening moments of David Osit's Mayor, you can't help but be struck by the beauty of the city in which the film is set. This wouldn't be surprising, I suppose, except for the fact that the city in question is Ramallah in Palestine, a city that garners much different images for the vast majority of Americans than the images we see come across the screen in Mayor.
The mayor in question is Musa Hadid, who's entering his second term as Ramallah's mayor when the film picks up. It's not nearly the glamorous position one might imagine, though it's also filled with surprising normalcy for a city that, at least to Americans, seems so controversial so much of the time. Osit's lens captures both, of course. It's necessary. There is undeniably trauma to be found in a city that is, essentially, without a country. Yet, Hadid is an engaging mayor. A Christian leading a largely Muslim city, Hadid is a former city engineer whose leadership lens largely focuses on maintaining the everyday functionality of his city. When we see the inevitable images of stone-throwing youths and Israeli tear gas attacks, much of what we're seeing is how Hadid seeks to provide residents a beautiful, functional city in the midst of it all.
The foundation of Mayor lies in former U.S. President Donald Trump's December 2017 decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel and to move the U.S. embassy there. It is an intentionally provocative decision by a president who often made the provocative choice rather than the world leadership one. It was a decision that caused much chaos as Palestinians recognize Jerusalem as their capital. Amidst it all, Hadid is constantly dealing with the ramifications of Israel truly surrounding them. This ranges from the difficulty of processing garbage since Israel will not allow the city to have its own sewage treatment plant to the task of having to clean up the city after each and after clash.
One can't help but wish that Osit would occasionally dig a bit deeper, though that's clearly not the intention here. There are times the lens gazes almost longingly at the sites around Ramallah, from a "WeRamallah" sculpture that serves as introductory level branding to almost uncomfortable leering at various protest attendees. Even Hadid is often captured in various stages of contemplation, the camera's linger seemingly determined to capture some semblance of a crack in the ever placid facade of a man who finds himself lost in the everyday despite the universal conflicts surrounding him.
To understand the humiliations experienced by the Palestinians, one need only get a glimpse at one particular Israeli incursion that nears Ramallah's City Hall. This is not a rare occurrence, but there's a non-chalance at play by the Israelis as they seemingly recognize they are practically untouchable in the eyes of the world and militarily almost undeniably more powerful. Watching Hadid's face is jarringly uncomfortable yet endlessly communicative.
As is always true, not everyone embraces Hadid despite his obvious popularity. However, time and again Mayor reminded me of my travels through mid-sized cities where I could often see city leadership amongst the residents and clearly beloved by them. Indeed, it is not hard to see why Hadid would be popular as he engages himself with garbage issues and school issues and cleanliness issues and wanting Ramallah, even with all its challenges, to be a beautiful place to live.
Mayor picked up a handful of prizes along its festival journey prior to its release by Film Movement including at Boston Palestine Film Festival (Audience Award, Best Narrative Feature), CPH:DOX (NEXT:WAVE Award), Full Frame Documentary Film Festival (Grandy Jury Award), Philadelphia Film Festival (Honorable Mention, Documentary Feature), and Cinema Eye Honors Awards (The Unforgettables).
Visit the Criterion Channel to check out the film for yourself.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic