MIFF 68½ – Mayor (2020)

Mayor (2020) is a fascinating documentary which provides a glimpse into the daily life of a municipal official whose job is more affected by major geopolitical concerns than most.

Since 2012, Musa Hadid has been Mayor of Ramallah, the de facto capital of Palestine, which is located 10 km north of Jerusalem in the disputed West Bank territory. Director David Osit (who is also the producer, cinematographer & co-editor) follows Musa over a period of two years as he conducts council meetings, visits locations in need of refurbishment, spends time with his family, and generally works to make his city better. Musa comes across as calm, friendly and approachable throughout, even during the more volatile situations which might be expected in such a precariously positioned city.

Musa’s background prior to becoming Mayor was in civil engineering, which is reflected in his quick assessment of the infrastructure during his site visits. While visiting a building site in Old Town, a section of the city in great need of reconstruction, Musa points out to an overly zealous builder that his plans to redevelop a house will destroy the only public toilet for women in the area and is insistent that the maintenance of these facilities takes priority. He visits crop sites which have been polluted by run-off from the surrounding Israeli settlements, a situation over which he has little control. Later in the film we hear him lament about the need for all major construction to be approved by Israel – it took 15 years for a new cemetery to be approved, and they have still been unable to make any progress on the approval of a sewage treatment plant.

Early in the film we see Musa presiding over the city’s Christmas celebrations. It was a jarring experience to see Palestinians singing Jingle Bells around a huge fully-lit Christmas tree in the city square while people in Santa suits rappel down the side of a building. Presiding over the celebration, Musa speaks about lighting the tree “with the light of Jesus Christ” and shares his hopes for freedom and independence. This communal experience of tolerance is quickly contrasted with Trump’s announcement that the US will move their embassy to Jerusalem, the consequences of which hang over the rest of the documentary. At first, these events are depicted in an almost farcical manner – Musa doesn’t typically follow the media, especially in relation to Trump, and doesn’t learn about the speech until told by a priest a couple of days later. He’s never used the television in his office, and when he asks whether he can watch the news he’s told that the TV has never been hooked up to cable. He has to ask for a radio and a daily newspaper to learn more, and when he asks the next day why he doesn’t have a radio yet, he’s met with surprise that he might had wanted it immediately. When consulting with council members later, and discussing the need to switch off the Christmas lights so that they are not targeted by soldiers, he has to veto the needlessly inflammatory suggestion from one person that they should instead emblazon the tree with the message “Jerusalem is our capital”.

As the US increases their posturing on what they see as a religious matter, it remains clear that at the local level, religion isn’t a primary factor. In response to a statement from Pence about protecting Palestinian Christians, Musa makes a statement that they don’t want or need religious protection, but rather the protection of an occupied people who are constantly subjected to military intrusions. He visits the vicinity of clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli soldiers, trying to gauge the extent of what is going on for himself – but he retains the composure to provide friendly greetings to children who have come up to say hello and shake his hand in the middle of this turmoil. Towards the end of the film we once again see Musa remaining calm while witnessing City Hall being surrounded by Israeli soldiers, even when residue of the tear gas being used affects those inside.

Rather than focusing on the futility and helplessness that could be evoked in the face of events larger than the city itself, David Osit chooses to celebrate the Mayor’s determination to do what he can to maintain his people’s dignity and improve his city. Plans for a fountain in Al-Manara Square have progressed throughout the film, and despite damage to the fountain during one of the incursions, the film closes with the opening ceremony of the illuminated fountain. The credits roll as colours sparkle across the waters, to the accompaniment of “Time to Say Goodbye (Con te partirò)” by Andrea Bocelli & Sarah Brightman.

Some reviews of this documentary have an odd tone, describing it as “hilarious” or like “a lost season of Veep“. Comments like these strike me as patronising, as if viewing the situation from a comfortably ironic distance. Overall, the film provides an affectionate portrait of leader who is engaged with his community and tries to provide hope and dignity to his people in difficult circumstances.

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