As the dust settles on this week's announcement that current Mayor Jenny Durkan will not seek a second term, there are already meaningful conversations taking place about what this means as well as who should be the one to take on the job.
There's one film that can offer some insights, despite it being set a world away in the city of Ramallah, Palestine. That film, the documentary Mayor, spotlights Ramallah's leader, Musa Hadid, as he attempts to preserve the city's tenuous way of life. Hadid shows the doc's viewers how a dedicated leader can do right by their people, even against the backdrop of a crisis.
Lesser documentaries frequently get caught up in being a rotating series of talking heads and archival footage, keeping the true subjects at a distance and stripping away anything resembling genuine connection. But Mayor is strictly observational, dedicated to depicting Ramallah's people as they are. It's fly-on-the-wall cinema, the type that requires an abundance of trust between filmmaker and subject.
During the film's festival run, I interviewed director David Osit about how he could earn that trust, especially when coming in as an outsider making a film that would screen for Western audiences. Part of that trust came from the fact that Osit was a one-person crew. In this case, flying solo offered versatility to be both unobtrusive and move quickly in rapidly evolving situations.
But what serves as the film's greatest strength is Osit's willingness to listen and learn from Hadid's day-to-day life. As Hadid works to improve his constituents' lives, you almost could forget the city's looming occupation. It creates a unique juxtaposition to see the mayor go from being involved in inspecting doors at a school to seeing soldiers coming over a hill into the city.
It's that multilayered story that complicates what's often a one-dimensional portrait of Palestine. Mayor refuses to be pinned down to simplistic categorization, instilling every interaction with a deeply felt humanity—and, importantly, humor, like when Hadid totally whiffs an attempted soccer kick. Or when Hadid is in a video with someone who says, "You're the best mayor in the world, and if anyone disagrees, they can fuck off." Hadid seems taken aback and says they have to delete the video, his awkwardness bleeding through.
One of my favorite, more vulnerable moments happens when Hadid turns directly to Osit and asks, "David, do you think people in America know or hear about what's happening here?" Osit can't offer an affirmative answer, and Hadid turns away, the silence lingering as the gravity of abandonment sinks in.
Even with all the documentary's moments of joy and connection, the threats facing Ramallah can't be ignored. From the Trump administration destabilizing the region by declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel to Israeli troops' arrival into the city by force, the city is on the edge of precarity. We watch Hadid fight for his people, even as he acknowledges the personal toll it takes on him. "I'll need six years to heal from all this," he tells the camera.
That's where Mayor proves to be a remarkable achievement. Shown through the eyes of Ramallah's leader, preconceived notions about the region are undone. It's a powerful portrait of a people left in its place.