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PALESTINE: A surprisingly cinematic fly-on-the-wall view of the daily life - and epic struggles - of the Christian mayor of Ramallah.
Director: David Osit
Producer: David Osit
Country: USA, UK

David Osit’s entertaining, at times funny, but essentially serious documentary focus on Musa Hadid, the Christian mayor of Ramallah, opens with a refreshingly normal vision of a popular city leader greeting locals as he makes his way around his patch fixing problems and encouraging cooperation.

When the curtain rises on the first act after this preamble – literally, in a magnificent long shot of the mayor standing at a big desk, as an automatic blind slowly rises up behind him to reveal a panoramic view of the park in front of Ramallah City Hall – we are given a glimpse of the stolidity and power of a man whose job is to run a major city successfully for a people without a country.

Musa Hadid-documentary-poster

Everyday life

Many documentaries – perhaps most – set in Palestine focus on the violence and humiliations of the Israeli occupation. It is not often that Palestinians are viewed through the lens of their everyday lives and governance. Images of stone-throwing youths and lethally armed heavily swaddled Israeli conscripts launching tear gas attacks, and worse, are ubiquitous. Osit does not shy away from showing such images – they are, after all, part of reality for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories3 – but he does so only within the context of the mayor’s daily work.

Osit inadvertently chose a historic moment to begin his close shadowing of Hadid, whom we see in the office, during meetings, out and about on the streets, and at home with his family. It is December 2017 and US President Donald Trump suddenly announces that he is recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moving the US embassy there. It is a decision that is in breach of numerous international treaties, offensive to the Palestinian claim to the city as their capital, and sparks an outbreak of lethally violent clashes between Palestinians and the occupying forces.

Hadid’s daily concerns – overseeing a beautification programme for Ramallah’s Old Town, dealing with sewage leaks (frequent because the Israeli’s will not permit the city to have its own sewage treatment plant), and planning Christmas celebrations for a city with a big (25%) Christian minority – have to be conducted against a background of rising tensions and growing clashes with the occupying forces.

Driving to inspect a sewage leak, Hadid finds the way ahead blocked by Israeli troops fighting it out with rock-lobbing youths. He pauses to watch from a relatively safe distance, before being pulled back into his car by his driver after they see a young Palestinian man shot in the leg in a broad valley just below them.

It is not often that Palestinians are viewed through the lens of their everyday lives and governance.

The cause

Later, after footage of Hadid’s international travels and meetings in Washington DC, Oxford, Berlin and elsewhere in support of the Palestinian cause, the violence comes into Ramallah city centre, when Israeli forces enter the city in search of security camera footage that might identify those they term as rioters. Hadid and members of his team are still in City Hall as the Israelis advance deep into the city centre, firing tear gas rounds as they go. There is the distinct possibility that they will force their way into City Hall – which does not have any security cameras – but in the end, they content themselves with taking selfies in front of the dancing fountain in the park in front of the building (a pet project of the mayor’s) and hauling off for questioning a mute porter from a nearby café.

Hadid watches all from within the lobby of City Hall, helping treat a journalist who comes in suffering from tear gas inhalation. Earlier in the film, he had been seen telling a German delegation that suggestions for building cultural links with non-political Israeli groups were too sensitive and had related the humiliation of being made to strip naked by teenage soldiers at Israeli checkpoints. A serious, hard-working man in his 50s with distinctive «salt and pepper» hair, Hadid does not often betray his emotions, but the night of the Israeli incursion clearly shows the energy he is putting into his self-restraint.

Hadid does not often betray his emotions

Like all politicians, Hadid has his detractors, and when he is pictured welcoming Britain’s Prince William on a tour of the city, he gets some online flak. But as a second term office holder, it is clear that he is popular – there is one amusing sequence where despite running late for a meeting, he is prevailed upon by a local to stay for lunch – and with his international travel agenda, someone who clearly could become a national leader later.

For anyone remotely interested in Middle Eastern politics and the possibility for peace in the region, Mayor is an important and timely film.