Open City Documentary Festival

Open City Documentary Festival 2020 – Focus: Mayor, What It Takes to Run This Place

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Ela Bittencourt writes about the problems faced by Musa Hadid, the Mayor of Ramallah and the subject of David Osit’s Mayor. Mayor is available in Block 1 (Wed 9th Sept midday – Sat 12th Sept midnight BST).

The early days of the Covid-19 pandemic in New York made the immensity of the job faced by state governor Andrew Cuomo painfully clear. My family are in the city, so I watched the daily conferences religiously, witnessing all those heroic displays of steely pragmatism or frank despair over the federal government’s failures and lack of resourcing. By comparison, the vision of governance seen in Mayor—a new documentary by American filmmaker David Osit—may seem surprisingly humble and intimate, despite depicting a position that is no less staggeringly difficult, albeit in different ways. 

Mayor opens as Musa Hadid, the mayor of Palestine’s de facto administrative capital Ramallah, and his staff vote on what their campaign’s hashtag should be. They must also decorate and unveil the city’s Christmas tree. In the meetings, an improvisational process prevails. At one point, an advisor quips: “why don’t we admit we don’t know what city branding is?” Precariousness is a constant, but adaptability, resilience, and quick-thinking always prevail in Hadid’s office. Social media can make it seem like real-world problems require virtual solutions, but the challenges Hadid faces on the ground are dispiritingly real. The municipality is plagued by Israel’s thwarting of basic infrastructure. In one scene, Hadid reminds international mediators that it took fifteen years for Israel to approve a single waste project. In others, he drives around the city making rushed calls for assistance, tending to spilling sewers or a burning dumpster. As he races around Ramallah’s highways, he faces Israeli blockades at every turn.

Mayor is not, however, a film entirely about logistical limbo, nor is it all about Hadid’s likeable persona. Scenes with his family are welcome (bringing to mind such documentaries as Robert Drew’s The Primary, where the camera peers not just into the macro-political but also the micro-personal realm) but they are always brief interludes. Mayor also conveys the city’s increasing political tensions, as are seen when Donald Trump moves the US Embassy to Jerusalem despite the protests of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. In front of the City Hall, Palestinian civilians clash with the Israeli army while Hadid (helpless, yet eerily calm) and a crowd of journalists find themselves locked inside and facing tear gas. In contrast to the severity of the crisis, Prince William’s sudden visit—which requires Hadid to navigate delicate diplomacy—is framed almost as a comic relief.

Given the gravity of the city’s problems, Osit’s light-footed approach to filmmaking might surprise. When the romantic music, reminiscent as it is of classic Hollywood movies, rolls over the opening credits, we are made to feel that we are entering the Ramallah of Hadid’s dreams, as opposed to the one that matches his limited means. Perhaps this is because a sense of humour (or more accurately, ironic detachment), not to mention true grit and creativity, is precisely what it takes to run this place. Osit’s film is more gripping, and all the more human too, for his having developed this imaginative connection. It is both in the details of the film (whether grave or frivolous: a hashtag, sewage spill, or dramatic attack), and in the speeches where Hadid rallies international journalists to Palestine’s cause, that, despite surface whimsy, we recognise the full existential complexity of his role. 

Ela Bittencourt is a writer and critic. She consults for a number of film festivals and runs the film site Lyssaria.

Tickets for Mayor are on sale now.