The mayor walks the few blocks from his home to work, stopped several times along the way by constituents at the start of his day.
“What can I do for you?” he asks, pressing the flesh and reinforcing what Tip O’Neill always said — “All politics is local.”
Those who shout out from shops, car windows or stop him on the street just want to say “Hi,” and seem thrilled just to meet The Mayor.
At his spacious office with a view from a sleek new City Hall, “Mayor Musa” (Habib) sits through meetings about “our city’s brand” and what they should name the fancy new city-center fountain. A tour of a restored school is where he listens to gripes about doors that don’t quite fit, and promises to see to it. As he walks neighborhoods like Old Town, he micromanages the managers running renovation projects, lecturing them on property rights and picking spots he’d like to see a bench or two placed.
It doesn’t matter if he’s running late. He’s sure to be arm-twisted into staying in the neighborhood for a community luncheon.
But as we watch David Osit’s documentary “Mayor,” we see a public figure who is sweating the little things because the big things are all but off limits to him. This is Ramallah, a mostly-Christian city in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian West Bank, capital of the Palestinian Authority.
Mayor Musa is an international figure, locally popular and when we meet him, freshly-reelected. But as he has to remind a helpful German “fact finding” delegation that’s shown up to counsel unending patience to a city, a people and a region chafing under over 50 years of occupation, “I could be stripped, in front of everyone, by a 16 year-old Israeli soldier” just because the soldier demands it.
Habib, the embodiment of cool, friendly “dignity” is, like every citizen of his city, subject to the whims of an invading army that shows up at any provocation, surrounded on hills in every direction by fortified Jewish “settlements” aimed at making permanent Israel’s claim to the West Bank.
“Mayor” follows Mayor Musa through days of diplomacy, planning, and tidying up a busy city which can boast of alluring shopping districts, enterprising cafe and shop owners and a Popeye’s Chicken franchise, one of many Western businesses that have planted roots there.
He keeps his cool under the deluge of petty details — City Hall’s cable hasn’t been hooked up, no newspapers have been delivered, and his repeated pleas for “a radio, so I can hear the news,” are buck-passed and ignored.
And then “that clown Trump” declares Jerusalem the capital of Israel and that he’s moving the U.S. Embassy to that multi-religion/multi-state and iconic West Bank city. All hell breaks look.
Mayor Musa must try to keep the peace, or at least bear witness to massive shows of force from the Israeli Defense Forces. He and his various subordinates remind each other and foreign dignitaries that they have no control over their borders or even their own sewage treatment and trash disposal. Israel closes off such cities whenever the Netanyahu government feels the need to flex its muscles. Sewage backs up, trash piles up and unruly citizens set fires in protest.
The suit-and-tie imperturbable Habib zips from hot spot to hot spot, literally putting out fires and chewing on those who might have set them, listening to complaints of Israeli “settlers” burning olive groves and polluting drinking water, taking his case to countries where he’s invited to speak and showing a face of reasonable defiance to Israel and the world when the need arises.
Osit (“Building Babel,” “Thank You for Playing”) has an eye for the ironic in this portrait of a polished modern politician trapped in an untenable situation. The picayune things that Mayor Musa throws himself into earn eye rolls from the mayor itself.
“Naming a fountain” is fine. But how can we get a sewage treatment plant if it took 15 years to get Israeli permission to open a new cemetery?
That slick new city hall? The international community had to build it after a 2002 Israeli incursion demolished much of the city.
Osit’s film never bogs itself down with details, such as “Is there a tax base paying for these improvements, or are international handouts Ramallah’s bottom line?
Ramallah’s resemblance to Beirut in a cosmopolitan sense, “WeRamallah” branded as “the gateway to Palestine” (“Too political,” the Mayor warns.) can make the viewer fret over Musa Habib’s future, mayor of a Christian city trapped within a Muslim-majority “state” unified only in its opposition to Israeli apartheid. That’s “fragile” in the extreme.
David, “do the people of America know what happens here?” Habib asks the off-camera filmmaker at one point. Probably not.
As the post-“Jerusalem is Israel’s capital” fallout reaches its apex, we see Israeli soldiers chasing rock-throwing protestors to the city’s center, with the soldiers pausing to take selfies in front of the city’s spectacularly-lit Christmas tree. Mayor Musa can only join those videoing the troopers doing this and shake his head.
As he’s the sort of personable, passionate politician a lot of people can identity with, “Mayor” leaves us with the hope that his plans don’t come to nothing, and that with “that clown” out of Washington, maybe he’ll find a more sympathetic ear here. Maybe journalists will “discover” Ramallah in between Israeli raids and “the gateway to Palestine” can be showcased to its best advantage.
After all, Americans who see a city decorated with KFCs and Starbucks might find there’s more than one point of view about what is and should happen in this corner of the Middle East.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, profanity
Cast: Mayor Musa Habib, Prince William, others
Credits: Directed by David Ostit. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 1:29