▶︎ Mayor is available in UK cinemas and online on 1 January 2021.
Over a blanket of plush strings on the soundtrack, seasonal decoration glitters at the Café de la Paix. Inside, a neatly-coiffed, besuited middle-aged man sips a single espresso at his table. We could be in any suave European capital, except that the preceding sequence has outlined the post-1967 geo-political conundrum that is Ramallah – so here we are in Palestinian territory on the West Bank, now cowed by Israeli occupation.
The lone gentleman, and subject of this sympathetic fly-on-the-wall portrait, is Musa Hadid, local mayor, Christian like a quarter of the population, and someone with a lot on his mind. The sense that we’re in smart, modern, urban surroundings may well come as something of surprise to anyone who imagines that Palestinians rub along in abject poverty, yet the achievement of David Osit’s thoughtful film is to help us understand how everything here comes with layers of complication.
The gleaming curves of the new city hall, with its grand circular fountain and attached terrace brasserie, attest to a certain civic pride, yet keeping municipal services going proves an unending headache for mayor Musa, since sewage regularly running down the streets highlights the need for a new treatment works the Israelis won’t let them build, and a refuse crisis is looming due to a lack of landfill capacity. Otherwise, the Israeli settlements – deemed illegal under international law – line the surrounding hills as a constant rebuke to Palestinian dreams of liberation, while at any moment the whole city can be flooded, without warning, by gun-toting IDF forces with their own security priorities.
In a sense, Musa is in office but not in power, yet as Osit’s camera follows him around, we realise his seemingly boundless patience and ever-calm bonhomie mask an underlying political resolution. It’s hard not to be struck, for instance, when he explains to well-wishing German parliamentary visitors that the lack of ongoing negotiations with the Israeli government is caused by the other side’s continuing barrage of daily humiliations, leaving the Palestinians unable to sit down with an opponent denying them the respect of everyday human dignity.
We don’t get to hear the Israeli side of the argument, but if we take this as a partisan view, it’s definitely an elegant and effective piece of portraiture. Director, cameraman and editor Osit gets gentle comic mileage from Musa’s troubles with modern technology (he’s definitely not a digital native), while his film also relishes the ideological gymnastics required so Musa’s administration maintains a separate identity from the Palestinian Authority, often choosing realpolitik restraint over firebrand invective.
At the start, we find Musa grappling with the notion of how to brand his city, something the film film itself achieves to engrossing effect, preferring quiet observation to familiar political point-scoring; it’s particularly striking in revealing the transformation, in mere moments, from familiar contemporary cityscape to war-torn nightmare as IDF bullets whizz past the camera. And between times, there are moments of repose, to let us feel the air in the trees and watch the Christmas lights twinkle.