The first time we see Ramallah Mayor Musa Hadid, subject of David Osit’s new documentary “Mayor,” he’s striding into the lobby of Ramallah City Hall.
A waist-high decorative snowman wearing a Santa Claus outfit greets Hadid with a black half-ramp of a smile. There are potted plants. There is a vending machine in the lobby, which is presumably restocked semi-regularly.
In Hadid’s first meeting of the movie (which is largely in Arabic, but subtitled in English), a goofily boring exploration of Ramallah’s “city branding,” the slideshow is shown with a Microsoft operating system. Out front, there is a fountain, with lights.
Ramallah City Hall and the duties of the people who walk its halls — trash collection, street cleaning, filling potholes and, yes, city branding — are totally and completely mundane. It is a place where city council, led by Hadid, administers municipal services to a city of about 35,000 people. In this mundanity, Osit finds an utterly compelling story.
The movie is an interesting departure from the usual conversation about Israel and Palestine. Even the most fervent partisans could write the other side’s lines at this point. The positions have been stated and restated. With the collected text of cable news screaming matches, seder table debates and poorly formatted chain emails, you could teach computers how to argue about disengaging from Gaza in 2004.
And when it comes to movies, if you want to find the one that adheres to your exact view of what’s happened, it’s out there, surely.
Meanwhile, people die, become embittered and dig in further. Generations of Israelis feel besieged and generations of Palestinians feel dispossessed.
But while the fates of Israelis and Palestinians are played out in the halls of power, in Washington, in Jerusalem, someone has to make sure that in Ramallah, the Christmas tree lighting ceremony is properly sequenced (national anthem, then moment of silence). Someone has to be in charge of deciding whether “WeRamallah” is meant to use the “R” as a stand-in for the word “are.” After clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians clear, someone has to go around and put out the literal fires.
In Ramallah, that someone is Musa Hadid, a man seemingly born with a hand clasped to his forehead, when it’s not holding an e-cigarette.
Hadid is the tired mayor at the center of the movie, bearer of a deeply lined face and a bushy, graying mustache. It’s a good face, one that Osit keeps his camera on for much of the movie.
Hadid rubs his eyes and his temples with regularity, smiles at Prince William during his official visit, looks upon soldiers in the street with horror, and at the naive German parliamentary delegation with indignation. When a teacher demonstrates the crappy doors on her classroom, he frowns.
“I can’t bear to see these doors again next years,” Hadid grumbles.
Even when Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh is telling cameras that he hopes Easter will be celebrated in Jerusalem next year, it’s Hadid’s face in the foreground, seemingly occupied with more immediate matters.
That shot encapsulates the spirit of the movie. The day-to-day is the focus, with the exceptional nature of the occupation as the contextualizing backdrop. The most moving sequences of “Mayor” return to this reality repeatedly; one montage early on, preceding a protest quelled with tear gas and bullets, shows American restaurants, social media logos on a billboard, hands raised in protest, fences, trucks with Hebrew lettering, the “WeRamallah” sign, a Christmas tree and an ominously smiling green light. There are thorny questions and a fraught history to every image, but we don’t have time to deal with that all right now, because a city that uses the currency of a country it is not a part of has to be governed. The meaning is built through the images.
Osit’s movie is “the Ramallah-ite’s experience of living in Ramallah,” as he put it in an interview with The New York Review of Books. For this reason, it will be a jarring experience for viewers who are not used to hearing serious newscasters describe Yom Ha’atzmaut as being the anniversary of “the Israeli regime’s installment,” and those who are accustomed to seeing Israel Defense Forces soldiers as more than far-off blurs toting big guns.
If those viewers would like to watch a movie that conforms to their experience of reality, they’re out there. But if you’re just a little curious about one Rammalah-ite’s experience of living in Ramallah, it’s worth seeing Mayor Hadid, the morning after an IDF raid on Ramallah, in disbelief that a school’s volleyball court could be so poorly designed.
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