Monday 4 January 2021

The limits of control: "Mayor"

And you think you're going back to a tough job. The cinematic New Year begins with Mayor, David Osit's fly-on-the-wall portrait of Musa Hadid, under whose mayorship the historically Christian city of Ramallah has become a haven for Palestinians, despite frequent Israeli encroachments. A brisk, moustachioed public servant, Hadid is introduced taking his morning coffee at the Cafe de la Paix across the street from his office; his instinctive response, upon being greeted by one constituent, is a cheery "How can I help you today?". Osit joined Hadid as he went about his rounds in late 2017. Touring one local school, he expresses delight in the new pink walls, but bristles at the doors, establishing himself as someone with a keen eye for areas of potential improvement. The question hanging over the film is how much improvement the Mayor of Ramallah can currently make. Genially sidestepping one child's cheeky query about Hamas, Hadid presents as a cuddly centrist; but as Osit fills in the context around him, it becomes clear the Mayor is a functionary caught in the middle of a much bigger, ever-shifting, eternally complex picture. There's a certain tragicomedy in this. Hadid nixes the PR slogan "Gateway to Palestine", lest it be deemed inciting; the fallback option, the blander, hashtag-ready "WeRamallah", incites confusion over whether the text should be set out as "We, Ramallah" or "We-R-Ramallah". In the meantime, the car radio reports further Israeli incursions, and clouds of smoke can be observed pluming up both on the horizon, and in the foreground: Hadid spends much of the film vacillating between vape use and his emergency cigarettes (they "smell like farts", according to his kids). Being a people pleaser, and trying to keep everybody happy, is difficult at the best of times. It becomes all but impossible when you're looking out on the most bloodily contested region on the planet.

Osit sensed the situation was inherently dramatic, even before he stepped off the plane and sniffed the tension in the air. Throughout Mayor, he seems happy enough sneaking into the back of council chambers or the mayoral car to watch Hadid navigate the challenges and pitfalls of an average day in these parts. For a while, the most pressing issue looks to be whether or not to include a zeppelin as part of the city's Christmas celebrations, but then news breaks of the Trump administration's decision to relocate the US embassy in Israel to neighbouring Jerusalem. We grasp how low Hadid is on the official Palestinian chain of command from the fact he first hears about this from a visiting priest, and then has to haggle with his secretary to get access to cable news. Thereafter, we bear witness to the trickledown effects of a decision taken thousands of miles away by a man with far greater power than Musa Hadid. Unrest gathers. Soldiers start to appear in Ramallan backyards. More news breaks, of protestors being killed and injured in Gaza. The matter of what to put on the City Hall Christmas tree gets bumped way down the agenda. As Hadid points out during his occasional overseas speaking engagements, he's essentially reactive, a man in a position of authority who recognises the limitations of that authority better than most. (Surely no world leader will know more precisely where their jurisdiction ends.) He's shown working within that scope - getting lightbulbs changed, ensuring the streets are swept clear of debris - but Mayor's poignancy derives from its awareness that Hadid's vision of Ramallah as an all-embracing, modern, progressive destination will never be realised so long as there are Israelis with guns circling his beloved Cafe de la Paix. "David, do you think people in America know or hear about what's happening here?," Hadid asks the director one relatively quiet afternoon. Osit has no easy or reassuring answer in person, but his film may yet serve as its own response. Will President Biden be in a position to cut this guy and his fellow Ramallans a little more slack?

Mayor is now streaming via Curzon Home Cinema, Prime Video and Dogwoof on Demand.

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