The all-too-familiar Star Wars theme graces the opening credits of Mayor, a David Osit documentary that follows the Mayor of Ramallah, a metropolitan city of Palestine. I braced myself for war-zone footage and historical commentary on the age-old Israel-Palestine conflict. But the credits cut to a rather banal municipality meeting where the Mayor, Musa Hadid, lazily listens to his council’s suggestions about city branding. Following this bureaucratic snooze fest (that ends with the question, ‘what the hell is city branding anyway?’), we see Musa going about his day as a public servant. School doors need to be replaced, Christmas events are to be planned, a fountain in the city hall is under construction. Musa is busy. I thought maybe this is an attempt to portray how ‘normal’ the mayoral duties are for Musa. He may have been Sadiq Khan, mayor of London, inquiring about the length of the Christmas tree to be displayed at Trafalgar square. I thought this would be an Arab version of Veep or Parks and Recreation.
But history soon catches up with the purposeful banality of this doc, and that too in a darkly comedic way. Trump has declared Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel. Musa realises his office doesn’t have a cable connection to watch this news on TV. Just one of the many bureaucratic tragedies for the mayor of a city without a country. Not many local governments, even in the third world, can claim to be affected by international politics the way Ramallah’s city council is. As violence ensues in Ramallah in the wake of Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, the council deliberates whether the Christmas tree should remain lit. As it turns out, far removed from the drudgery of municipal work, Musa’s work is sprinkled with political symbolism. The tree, and later the fountain, become an act of resistance.
Let the man be a regular mayor, I thought. Let him put out dumpster fires, inaugurate sewage treatment plants and brand his city with slogans like ‘We Ramallah’, the letter R serving as an auxiliary verb in a sadly clever way. Musa himself admits to feeling professional jealousy when visiting other cities and their mayors. After all, he is supposedly in charge of a comparatively functional city with admirable infrastructure to rival that of Karachi. The camera pointedly captures all the Popeyes and Pizza Huts. Ramallah is thriving, compared to Paris, like all cities with culture. But the context, the sub layer, the tragedy, can’t remain hidden under a McDonald’s-style liberalisation façade. That Musa can’t be a ‘normal’ mayor is made all too clear when he casually comments on the standard of protests not being up to the mark. Banality makes violence more tragic and funny, which was the point of the doc all along. That when you are living with a terminal illness (read: under occupation), your good day resembles someone else’s worst day.
Most of the time, Musa isn’t sad or disappointed, just weary. ‘No one is left to liberate us,’ he says, but keeps trudging along, witnessing world events unfold with a resigned professionalism. Musa’s latent activism unwittingly shows up at many points in the doc. In one meeting, the German ‘peace’ delegation visits the promising city of Ramallah, and innocently reiterates what any well-meaning but naïve Western liberal would, ‘Why don’t you just talk to them? Have a conversation.’ Musa gives the time-worn reply, ‘It’s about dignity.’ We learn he can’t commission a sewage treatment plant without ‘their’ approval, that it took ‘them’ 15 years to approve a cemetery in Ramallah. Musa doesn’t want his city – and, by extension, the Palestinian identity – to be defined by its problems, but he can’t help it. He has to use the ‘us/them’ narrative. There is simply no other way to sweetly label this relationship. Another montage in the doc shows him touring the world – from Washington to Oxford – not as a diplomatic dignitary (although he would have preferred that), but rather as an activist for the Palestinian cause, only to be met with the platitudes of the liberals who try not to pick sides and offer ‘choir performances’ and ‘football matches’ as means of non-controversial cultural exchange.
At many points during this 90-minute doc (streaming on Vice), I saw Musa as a spiritual, more tamed, offspring of Ghassan Kanafani, the PFLP founder, who, in a famous 1970 interview, two years before his assassination by Mossad, answered a similar question about why Palestinians can’t just have a conversation at the table instead of picking arms. He replied, ‘That would be a conversation between a neck and a sword’ and that ‘dignity is as essential as life itself’. Musa, of course, has to keep up his appearance as an authority figure. He doesn’t have a rebel’s luxury to lay out the truth as blatantly as Kanafani did: ‘it’s not a conflict or civil war, it’s weak people fighting strong people’.
The documentary – right until its very final shot, which shows a fountain dancing – perfectly captures the big story with a small lens. What better way to introduce a violence-desensitised audience to people whose daily existence is a political act? Musa and his council assert themselves through small civil acts like organising a Christmas parade under the Ramallah sun, then going on to the Facebook live stream of the Israeli army attacking their city hall at night, only to return the next morning to celebrate the installation of new school doors. Life goes on.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.