Among the absurdly bad faith (or shockingly ignorant) arguments made to justify the occupation policies of Israel toward the Palestinian people are those that point out at how vibrant and fun can life be in many of the Palestinian cities under Israeli occupation. How could it be so bad if they post so many cool pictures on Instagram?
You don’t need to buy the racist, pro-occupation arguments to marvel at the vibrancy of life in Palestinian cities. This urban energy is only one aspect of Palestinian resilience in face of adversity and occupation, immortalized in a refrain of a poem by Rafeef Ziadah: “We teach life, sir.”
This resilience is at the heart of David Osit’s dark satirical documentary on Musa Hadid, the mayor of Ramallah, a historically Christian town with a population of less than 30,000 that serves as the capital of Palestinian Authority rule. Life in occupied Gaza and West Bank has received numerous ingenious documentary treatments; what makes Mayor distinct is the dark comedy that underpins its telling of the life of Hadid, mayor of a small town who, like most of his counterparts anywhere in the world, has to deal with quotidian municipal issues like sewage treatment, city-run restaurants and singing fountains. Only here every simple task is bound up with the Israeli occupation and a conflict that causes more rage and emotion globally than any other. There is something deeply bizarre about this conflation of local and global, small and grand.
The film uses this bizarre reality to construct a narrative that successfully avoids pitfalls of familiar cliches: we see the Palestinian council members planning their somewhat cheesy #WeRamallah slogan or their Santa Claus processions but these are not dragged into a “look how non-political people can be” style, so familiar to certain brands of Western journalism. In fact, the high political stakes involved at smallest measures are amply demonstrated — yet this is not done in a didactic manner that would make the film on-the-nose. The travails of occupation gives ample illustration material to the director. It’s not hard to feel the pervasiveness of occupation as we follow Musa around. Speakers in an anti-littering campaign make sure to mention the hated Ihtilal (occupation.) The illegal settlers around Ramallah are seen from the roof of Hadid’s home — and the Israeli army attacks the city when protests break out following Donald Trump’s moving of the US embassy to the disputed city of Jerusalem. The mayor has to hide behind his car not to be hit by bullets — just like every other Palestinian in sight. The highly politicized life in Palestine shows itself in the smallest of moments: like when a young kid asks the mayor which political party he belongs to (Fatah or Hamas?).
Osit’s camera ably looks after the absurdities that give a strong dark satire character to the film. Real life in occupied Ramallah offers more absurd moments than Samuel Beckett could have ever worked up: During one night of the attacks, we see the mayor holed up in the municipal building under siege by Israeli soldiers who make sure to get smiling selfies with the Christmas tree his team has worked so hard to keep up.
Yet, for all its absurdity, the life under occupation portrayed by Mayor is deeply simple in a sense: unlike what the deceitful propagandists might want us to believe, life under the foreign bayonets of an occupying army is deeply unpleasant — even if the occupied people resiliently put up with absurdities and look for bright moments of fun.