As “Mayor” gets underway, Hadid is meeting with staff members to discuss branding opportunities for Ramallah, where he has undertaken a dual mandate: to inject civic pride and stability, while fighting the Israeli occupation and settlements (“Even when they’re not doing anything, it’s suffocating,” he complains.)
All too often, those tasks militate against one another, as a harrowing sequence late in the film attests. But, much like Frederick Wiseman’s recent documentary “City Hall,” this cinema verite account isn’t interested in conflict as much as the dogged, day-in, day-out work of keeping a community running.
In Hadid’s case, this could mean dealing with a sewage emergency (“I literally can’t deal with this s---,” he says at one point) or overseeing the annual Christmas celebration, which will feature rappelling Santas, a light show, balloons and fireworks. Hangdog, sometimes hapless, given to wry humor and sneaking the odd cigarette, Hadid emerges as an enormously sympathetic figure as he tries to build a sustainable, self-contained European-style city amid the pressures and uncertainties of occupation.
Indeed, Hadid is such a fascinating figure that one wishes filmmaker David Osit had broken the verite rules and engaged his subject in an straight-on interview, the better to find out more about his past (press materials indicate he was a civil engineer before becoming a politician). But what “Mayor” lacks in terms of wiki-esque biography it more than makes up for in immediacy and exquisite timing: Osit was filming in 2017 at the exact moment when the Trump administration moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, sending Hadid and his staff into a flurry of rushed meetings and debates.
Luckily, Osit knew precisely what to do with the extraordinary material he captured. Rather than produce a simple ticktock of events, he edited “Mayor” and wrote its lush musical score in such a way as to puncture the audience’s preconceived notions. If “Mayor” has a subtext, it’s about the power of storytelling, for better or worse; in many ways, Hadid it trying to upend a decades-in-the-making narrative about the Palestinians, with frustratingly uneven success.
Throughout “Mayor,” Hadid can be seen gazing upon his beloved fountain outside City Hall, and what might seem like a folly takes on its true meaning: For him, it symbolizes normalcy, self-respect and beauty for its own life-giving sake. Late in the film, all of those principles literally come under fire, in a sequence that is infuriating and heartbreaking in equal measure. But even in the most extreme circumstances, Hadid retains the low-key equanimity that is as indispensable as his ever-present vape pen. “How are you so calm, Musa?” someone asks him when Trump’s embassy policy is announced. His response is characteristically measured: “It’s happening,” he says resignedly, “whether we’re freaking out or not.”