Mayor. Directed by David Osit. Rosewater Pictures, LLC, 2020.
Reviewed by Maytal Mark
City branding is not the topic one expects to dwell on in a documentary about Palestinian civil engineer and Ramallah mayor Musa Hadid. But Mayor director David Osit’s camera returns repeatedly to the visual symbol of the city’s prominent “WeRamallah” sign, built in the style of Instagram-ready urban signage like the much-photographed “I Amsterdam” structure. In a typical scene, Hadid goes back and forth with an employee about how to read the sign’s spacing to convey the right message: is it “We are Ramallah” or “We, Ramallah?”
The question haunts many a frame in Osit’s quiet, impressionistic film. Hadid looks on as German parliamentary delegates watch the city’s promotional video describing Ramallah as “a mosaic of Palestine…a home and a refuge.” In another conversation, Hadid summarizes his take on another type of Palestinian branding: “We think the whole world can’t sleep because they’re worried about us! Please man, nobody is.” After some thought, he muses, “the problem is we can’t find the appropriate tone to convey things to people. We can’t find it.
The historically Christian city that elected Hadid has been under Israeli occupation since 1967, and today remains an Area A city in the West Bank, whose military and civil affairs are officially under the Palestinian National Authority. Israeli settlements surround the city just six miles north of Jerusalem – an economic and religious hub that Ramallah residents require specialized permits to visit. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing policies encouraging Jewish settlements and expanded construction in East Jerusalem gained a vote of confidence from the Trump administration when the United States Embassy was moved to Jerusalem in May, 2018. The move was a blow to the hope of Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state and holds a central place in the narrative arc of Mayor, filmed at the height of Trump’s presidency. Against the foil of a receding Jerusalem, Hadid struggles to define Ramallah – not only its brand, but its place as the de-facto seat of Palestinian government and simultaneously as a modern city under occupation.
This struggle is pronounced in a tense meeting with German delegates, who seem only interested in talking big picture: getting the Israelis and Palestinians to sit down together. They see Ramallah not as a city but as a synecdoche. Hadid tries to bring them back to the ground, explaining the bureaucratic obstacles to operating basic facilities, entering Jerusalem, and navigating the labyrinth of checkpoints to move from city to city. “It took us fifteen years to get the Israeli permit to build a cemetery,” a staffer adds. “It’s about dignity,” Hadid finally says to the delegates. “When we feel that we are not treated as slaves and they are masters, we are ready to do everything.”
Osit makes a conscious choice not to focus much on the grandiose – an approach one might fault him for as it dodges the need to make a decisive statement – but it makes such moments stand out all the more. We see a dissociated montage of Hadid’s international speaking engagements to various, nearly faceless, diplomatic crowds, but watch the entire exchange unfold when Hadid asks an assistant to please find him a cable connection – okay, if not that, a newspaper, a radio – to tune into the news about the US Embassy move. We watch as Hadid talks to kids from a nearby village about losing their sheep to polluted water, goes out to examine sewage leaks, and puts out literal fires. At its best the documentary compellingly argues, as a kind of micro-history, exactly Musa’s point: it is precisely that which seems most mundane that remains the arbiter of dignity.
At this moment in 2021, during the most deadly flare up between Israel and Hamas since 2014, watching a film that has been marketed as a “dark comedy” about Palestine treads the line of trivializing. But Osit does at least capture – both through dark, humorous contrasts and in powerful standalone shots – the occupation’s way of seeping into virtually every part of daily life. Legal scholars, historians, and anthropologists have documented the ways that restricted movement, spontaneous violence, and contrived bureaucracy work to enforce subjugation under Israel’s twin systems of occupation and settlement, condemned but unimpeded by international legal bodies. For the non-expert a glimpse at Hadid’s life as mayor of a city that cannot truly be its own, to see what a city under occupation really looks like, might gesture at the vast and ongoing power imbalance at play between the state of Israel and the Palestinians, who are divided geographically and politically. West Bank Palestinians’ first scheduled general elections in 15 years were indefinitely postponed in April by current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, both over issues of voter participation in East Jerusalem and, many suspect, because his party Fatah stood to lose several seats due to flagging support. Without time to wade into the political intricacies, Osit’s film imparts the sense that Hadid and the constituents he represents stand isolated, although some have noted that recent protests within Israel and across the occupied territories focused on Sheikh Jarrah and Al-Aqsa Mosque might represent a new stage of Palestinian solidarity. If Hadid’s coping mechanism in the face of uncertainty and political fragmentation is his calm focus on the municipal, it is no match for the brute forces at play in the movie’s tense final half hour. When the geopolitical big picture steps in in the form of an evening military raid, Hadid is left sequestered in the sanctuary of his city hall, tensely watching and waiting for the Israeli soldiers to clear out so he can get back to work.
Maytal Mark will enter NYU’s PhD program in Hebrew and Judaic studies this fall after completing her Master’s degree in Modern Middle East History at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research interests include the history of Zionism, Jewish-Arab relations, and Jewish settlement in Palestine before 1948.
Featured image (at top): “Ramallah at Night,” 2015, Heinrich Böll Foundation Palestine and Jordan, Flckr.com.