Mayor Musa Hadid is a celebrity of sorts in Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital in the central West Bank, situated just a few miles north of Jerusalem. But it’s hard out there for this idiosyncratic, handsomely attired and mustachioed character, greeted often by excited kids and curious adults whenever he is spotted in the streets of the bustling town he tries to better for its citizens, burdened by the stifling politics of the region. And we get to understand why throughout the gripping and surprisingly witty “Mayor,” filmmaker David Osit’s thoughtful study of a spirited man and his burgeoning city, anchored in Hadid’s everyday dilemmas. It’s an acutely observed you-are-there procedural about a modern metropolis that dares to exist, even thrive amid the enduring repercussions of 1967’s Six-Day War, when Israel occupied the region.
Considering all the hardships that surround the borders of Ramallah — among them is the threat of armed Israeli settlements that don’t shy away from being hostile, as depicted later on in “Mayor” — you can’t help but root for Hadid’s success, and grasp the significance of his reputable status amid a diverse population who might not have the opportunity to travel far, but still deserves to have access to urban perks and conveniences. Through this perspective, Osit — who directed, produced and shot the film — invests our attention into the day-to-day of the elected official (now serving his second term), with decisions that concern everything from repaving the sidewalks to building a beautiful fountain in the heart of the city and planning 2017’s Christmas celebrations. (Like Hadid himself, nearly a quarter of Ramallah’s citizens are Christians.) Gradually, a subsequent juxtaposition organically develops in “Mayor”: the innocence and niceties of ordinary life vs. myriad of geopolitical challenges that are anything but ordinary.
Having studied and spent a considerable amount of time in the Middle East, Osit brings a respectful approach that admirably never registers as observations of a patronizing Westerner. On the contrary, the filmmaker does well in portraying Ramallah with a sympathetically insider-y and even proud eye, unearthing astonishing specificity within the universal facets of Hadid’s vocation. Elsewhere, he summons a darkly comedic tone and Kafkaesque insight from bureaucratic machinations.
An example of this arrives early in the film when the overworked mayor finds himself in a commonplace business meeting alongside advertising-minded executives, taking a crack at defining Ramallah’s branding. “‘Gateway to Palestine’ is too problematic,” someone earnestly suggests. Another one proposes something memorable and differentiating, offering Minnesota’s “Land of 10,000 Lakes” as an example to learn from. Moments later and throughout the film, a giant WeRamallah sign stands tall as the city’s logo, only vaguely communicating a vision to the residents and prospective tourists of a territory in cultural and structural transition — a conundrum that doesn’t get lost on Hadid.
Ironically, “Mayor” itself proves to be a far more effective marketing device for Ramallah than any slogan, successfully unlocking the multifaceted layers of the complex municipality. Accompanied by rousing classical scores and enriched with energetic details of daily life, Osit’s majestic examination of the town culminates in an entertaining film in that regard, one deserving of a theatrical run geared toward both specialty and mainstream audiences. The director also strives to erase any clichéd and falsely deprived images of the region from the globe’s collective consciousness, replacing them with electric car charging stations, cool cafés and an impressive tree lighting ceremony in the finale, attended by eager and celebratory thousands. Enmeshing the urgent, deeply personal quality of “5 Broken Cameras” with the crisp sense of humor of “Tel Aviv on Fire,” “Mayor” supplies a refreshing representation of the Middle East and of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to those with a limited knowledge of the region.
Still, Osit doesn’t always indulge in hope and positivity, instead allowing us to experience first-hand what happens when outside forces emerge and erase those optimistic feelings Hadid and his fellow citizens strive to maintain. In one scene, we survey Hadid’s chaotic face as he is informed about a shattering decision of the Trump administration to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In another, we find ourselves in the midst of a crossfire led by armed and power-tripping Israeli troops; an occurrence that doesn’t seem to be all that uncommon. But as Osit vividly demonstrates throughout “Mayor,” life goes on in full force for this unique town
and its charismatic leader who gets to see his splashy fountain come to fruition as a dignified symbol of hope.