“Palestine May Be the Last Bastion of American Ignorance”: David Osit on Mayor
Conflicts keep Mayor Musa Hadid, mayor of the Palestinian city of Ramallah since 2012, on the move. A modest man who delights in meeting his fellow citizens and problem-solving ways to make their daily existence easier, he’s a walking, talking human “customer service department.” Hadid is less the head of municipality than a crisis manager, listening patiently to every complaint and request that comes his way.
Consistently reminded that his power is limited by the unwanted presence of Israeli military and government interference, Hadid’s running of a city in occupation is often frustratingly restricted. In director David Osit’s new documentary, Mayor, we follow Ramallah’s head as he attends countless monotonous meetings related to “city branding” and tacky holiday events that will boost public morale. All throughout, there’s something dryly humorous in observing Hadid’s stressful plight. When President Donald Trump announces the relocation of the United States Embassy to Jerusalem, Hadid finds himself fighting an impossible battle; he’s an overworked landlord in a building he doesn’t even own. As much a character study as it is a study of a nation’s character, Mayor is a fascinating look at a man who works around the clock and still doesn’t have enough time nor resources. Is the rest of the world even aware of the struggles of Palestinians?
A few days before the annual International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people took place on November 29th, I spoke with Osit about his background in Middle Eastern studies, what most films get wrong about Palestine, capturing the unexpected humor in Hadid’s day-to-day tasks and what to prepare for when you’re in harm’s way (but must keep filming). Mayor is now streaming in virtual cinemas across the country.
Filmmaker: You previously studied refugee law at the American University of Cairo and at the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Michigan. When did your interest in filmmaking arrive? Were you searching for an anthropological way into the arts?
Osit: I had been interested in pursuing a career in refugee law. That’s what initially brought me to the Middle East and what I wanted to continue with when I went back to the University of Michigan. However, I realized that, at best, I could maybe be a slightly-above-average attorney—the kind who gets a job, fills a role and does the work. That might be nice, but I was more excited about doing something with my career that hadn’t already been done. Rather than just fill a role, maybe I could tell stories or make films that wouldn’t have been made otherwise. As a twenty-year-old who had just started watching documentaries, that felt more exciting to me. I didn’t come from a film background, but I remember seeing James Longley’s film, Iraq in Fragments, which was a formative documentary for a lot of filmmakers in my generation, and realizing that it was shot on a $1,500 camera by one person with a lavalier mic and a shotgun mic. It had never occurred to me that it would be possible for someone not from means to become a filmmaker. The only thing that would be holding me back, if it wasn’t money, was knowledge and skill. That’s what brought me to pursuing a graduate degree at the School of Visual Arts in their Documentary Film Program. It was the inaugural year of the program and it helped me marry or reconcile this idea of “there are films that I potentially would want to make, but I don’t really have the knowledge of how to yet.”
Filmmaker: I know your full-time gig is editing other filmmakers’ projects, and so I was curious if that aspect of collaboration, of coming onto a work that wasn’t spearheaded by you, was also something you learned at grad school?
Osit: Yeah, and I think film school is a great place to also learn what not to do, learn what you’re not good at and what your strengths aren’t. I’m a little bit more negative or critical of myself when it pertains to creativity. I essentially learned that I enjoyed having control over all aspects of a production due to my being a very anxious person. I like having control over what I’m doing, and I want to figure out how to be involved in every aspect of production. Even though I don’t have a musical background, I wanted to be involved in creating the music for my films. It made me feel like I had some control.
Editing is something that’s always hard to give up control over, so I wanted to make sure I could edit. Cinematography was also important to me, as there were specific ways I imagined my films looking, so I wanted to make sure I could do that too. I ended up forcing myself into this horrible hole in grad school of being a control freak who needed to do everything on his own. I didn’t feel like I was punishing myself because I ended up being able to do things that worked for me. Having a hand in each of these different parts of production when I would be working on film projects felt good. I didn’t feel like I was overextending myself, it felt like I was maximizing my chance to leave this imprint on what I wanted my films to look and feel like. That feeling continues to this day, where now I’m directing my own projects while also enjoying my time editing or composing music for other filmmakers. It’s a way to find different avenues of personal creativity while being at various stages in whatever films I’m working on.
Filmmaker: Knowing your background and interests, the themes apparent in your own work definitely become clearer.
Osit: I think one thing each project has in common is that each is compelled by a question that feels unanswerable. Therefore, I have to learn more and seek more personal, emotional or physical experiences that will help to answer the core question. A few years ago, I had spent some time in Ramallah, editing a documentary, Off Frame, for director Mohanad Yaqubi. When I returned [to begin work on Mayor], it had been some time since I’d been back in Ramallah, and I was amazed how much the city had changed. There were hipster bars and nightclubs and free unlimited public wifi and a Jaguar dealership and all these different things in the city. It was then, after learning more about the city and speaking with Palestinian friends and colleagues, that I grew compelled by questions of, “How do you run a city if you don’t have a country? How does this city come to be what it looks like today, while still being occupied by foreign military power? What does that do to your psyche? What does that do to the way you govern? What does that do to the way you ascribe larger goals for yourselves or your constituents? How do you reconcile what you want with what you can’t have and what you were denied?”
I didn’t have any of these answers. How could I? I didn’t possess the experience of growing up in occupation. One of the reasons I get so excited when working on various projects is that it serves as a quest for me to learn things that I would have no way of otherwise learning. I often think about what should be a film versus what would be better suited as a journalistic, written article. The journey I imagined going on in Mayor felt very filmic to me, of seeing what this part of the world looked like through the eyes of its mayor. I relished the idea of spending a year or two attempting to answer that core question for myself.
Filmmaker: How did you gain access to Mayor Musa Hadid? He would have to sign-off on the idea, of course.
Osit: I was able to have one meeting with him where I laid out what my plans were and how I was interested in making a film about the municipality of Ramallah, mostly through his office and the eyes of his administration. I told him that I wouldn’t act like a journalist who just shows up for a few days and then leaves. I would remain in Ramallah for a year or two. He said, “That’s fine, just don’t make me the main character of the film.” I said we’d talk about that later.
Funny enough, when I was imagining what this film might be, I was imagining that it would be humorous, because I think local government is humorous and bureaucracy can be too. In the context of occupation, it’s not only humorous but tragic, and perhaps humor could amplify the tragedy and make it resonate even more. In my first encounter with Musa, I walk into his office while he’s on the phone, finishing up a call with one of his constituents, saying, “Listen man, I told you, you can’t park there. Don’t keep calling me trying to get out of traffic tickets! Just stop parking there!” I remember thinking to myself how rare it is when you know something is going to work the way you wanted it to. I say this especially as an insecure filmmaker: it’s a wonderful vindication to realize that the idea that compelled you to make the film is precisely what will compel other people to engage with it.
Filmmaker: When it comes to planning a film that follows a political leader, did you look to other previous works of nonfiction? Any trappings you were hoping to avoid?
Osit: I was actually watching a lot more fiction to prepare for filming Mayor. One example is a movie by the Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman, Divine Intervention, which is a fantastic film. It’s this absurd, tragic comedy that also reminded me of Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. While both films feature austere humor, there are also these moments of incredibly provocative darkness. I was rewatching tons of Roberto Rossellini films and work from the Czech New Wave, like Miloš Forman’s Loves of a Blonde and The Fireman’s Ball. How do you make a portrait of a place through comedy or through a wider lens than it normally allows certain things to come through? You’re letting humorous moments come through all along, but how do you incorporate a wider lens of a place that allows it to be a standard for a deeper societal problem? That’s why I was interested in a lot of the Czech New Wave films, as they’re trying to launch this critique of what society has become in this extraordinarily micro way. The context of The Fireman’s Ball is the act of putting on a ball and questioning what it means for a society. That resonated with me as I began work on Mayor. At the beginning of my film, the viewer observes this mayor putting on all of these civic celebrations and there are Christmas trees and water fountains and everything else. I think those things are imbued with more meaning by the film’s conclusion.
I was also thinking a lot about certain Iranian filmmakers. I really love Amir Naderi’s The Runner, a film that on one level is about modernization and modernity, but is primarily just following a little boy trying to figure out how to survive on the shores of Bandar Abbas. You’re following that micro-story throughout the film, and then at the end, you realize what the film has actually been about. I love that feeling of an awakening within the viewer.
It’s important to allow audiences’ feelings to evolve as they’re watching a film the same way my own feelings evolved as I was making it. Every film I make has some element of autobiographical experience that comes with physically being there and recalling what I’ve learned. I loathe showing up to make a film knowing exactly what the film is going to be and what I want to say. My favorite moments in Mayor are the ones where I’m trying to show you my surprise and surprising you in the way I was surprised while being there.
Filmmaker: Speaking of audience expectations, the film opens in a very studious way, with on-screen text that scrolls over a map of the West Bank. The text gets us up to speed on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as somber music plays in the background, providing the expectation of a dire, intensely serious film. Of course, those expectations change quickly.
Osit: It’s funny you say that, because that opening makes me laugh. I wanted the first five minutes of the film to make you think to yourself, “What am I watching?” When you’re watching the scroll, with this overly dramatic music, you also see a shot of a cafe in the background. I don’t think it’s necessary that you laughed during that moment, but I think there’s this juxtaposition in the first third of the film, between these softer moments and these darker moments. It was important for me to evoke more of the sound of, say, the family comedy Home Alone than the sounds you typically associate with a documentary about the Middle East. It was important for me to give you this impression of, “This doesn’t really add up to what I imagined a film about the Middle East being.”
I also wanted to incorporate images that challenge the idea of what a Middle Eastern story should look like. As Americans, we have such a horrendously monolithic idea of what a Middle Eastern story can be. The sky has to look a certain way and the music has to sound a certain way, etc. The death of American consciousness about the rest of the world comes from how limited our images are of being able to perceive the rest of the world.
Filmmaker: Regarding the score for the film, was that also composed as a response to the sounds we typically associate with Middle Eastern stories?
Osit: For me, the score was just as important as any editing decision [and] as much an element of the storytelling as any scene I filmed. While some of the music is from myself and one other composer, the score is mostly by two artists in Geinoh Yamashirogumi, which is a Japanese prog-band from the 1970s and 1980s, who are most famous for creating the soundtrack to Katsuhiro Otomo’s animated film, Akira. The group would travel all over the world, recording folk music with different countries and different cultures and then rerecording it. So, all the vocal music in Mayor is from them. You’re hearing folk music from Georgia, from Mali, from China, from Korea.
I wanted to do everything I could to make sure that this film wasn’t grounded in the idea of a conflict or a political story. I didn’t want you to feel like you had to have a degree in Middle Eastern history to understand what was happening. The film is about a man who is a mayor, and as you follow him, you’re following the story. Anything I could do to take you away from a sense of place, from history, and from context, was really important to me. The less you understand what to focus on, the more you have to focus on what’s in front of you.
While there’s a magical quality to the music, it hopefully serves as a stabilizing element. I was really excited by the question of, “How could I make a film that feels like a fable in a very complicated place?” If I can make a film that feels very simple in its construct, giving you a very small degree of things to focus on related to this mayor, then the geopolitical elements of occupation and the tragedy invited upon Palestinian citizenry will stand out all the more. Those are the elements that actually distract you from the fable you’re following. The music has a surprising, incongruent sound that forces you to focus on what you’re literally seeing on screen, removing all of the personal knowledge and context you bring to the film.
Filmmaker: The film features Musa Hadid in various meetings that drone on and on as multiple points-of-view and areas of conflict are presented. Were you hoping to be present for all of Musa’s work meetings? Find a narrative in the mundane aspects of his life?
Osit: I filmed around 350 hours of footage, a lot of which are meetings that were perhaps so banal they didn’t even find a place in a film that’s prizing banality! Those little scenes or little moments of dialogue would be filmed, then I would wonder what it would represent in the context of the fable. There are scenes where foreigners are visiting Musa and they have various conservations, etc. I was less interested in the details of the scene than I was with the question of, “Where will the audience be able to align themselves as they’re watching this? Will they feel like they understand Musa’s point-of-view? Or will they identify with the foreigners coming in? What can I do to make you identify with our protagonist instead of the foreigners who are typically invited into documentaries as a crutch who provide some cultural relativism for viewers to grab onto?” Actually, there’s one scene in the film where a German delegation is speaking English with Musa, and everyone’s speaking English for the first time in the film, but I only subtitle the visiting German delegation, even though everyone’s speaking English (and Musa and his colleagues are deliberately not subtitled). I can’t deny that this is in part an anti-colonial decision on my part.
Filmmaker: Regarding that 350 hours of footage, I’ve heard you speak about the attack on City Hall that occurs late in the film and how you were preoccupied with logistical concerns like memory card storage and your camera’s battery life, etc. How often were you concerned with those seemingly simple yet necessary things (like the ability to record and store your footage) in moments of impromptu danger?
Osit: I’m a very anxious person and tend to worry about everything. But in a situation where there’s violence or a risk to my health, it gives me something to focus on, to ask “How much card space do I have left on my camera?” versus “Is what I’m filming going to be injurious to me, personally?” I feel like being worried about minutiae is itself a coping and defense mechanism for me and a lot of other filmmakers when we’re filming under difficult circumstances. I’ve previously filmed in emotionally difficult circumstances, where I actually find myself feeling much the same way I did with Mayor. My last film, Thank You for Playing, involved filming some tense moments with a family who was about to lose their child from cancer. I would find myself feeling a very similar way as the parents do when I was filming those scenes. Even so, I have to focus on what I’m seeing and filming. There’s a way in which you have to separate yourself a little bit—which sounds a bit inhuman, I know. But it’s a way to remind yourself that, in this moment, there’s this strange job that you’re tasked with, which is trying to document something.
There’s this illusion that documentary filmmakers use their camera as one would use a flashlight, which is that you just point at something and then it lights up. That’s not really how it works. When I’m trying to film something, I’m thinking, “What is being revealed by this?” Instead of me shining a flashlight, it’s more like me looking for the light while I’m filming in darkness.
For a scene like the attack on City Hall, I’m thinking to myself, “I spent my entire time filming here trying to think about rules for myself as I’m filming. One of those rules was that if I come across something I’ve seen in popular media before or in a film about Palestine or Israel, I want to film it differently or I won’t film it all.” I was always wondering how the occupation would physically assert itself into my film, a film about this beautiful city of Ramallah, that, if you squint, you can imagine that there is peace here and that there is no conflict. The city is very beautiful and it gets along well and is well run, but it didn’t take long for the occupation to assert itself.
Whenever there were moments of violence that I found myself filming, I thought, “How can I make sure that this film stays rooted in my protagonist’s point of view?” You’ve been following this mayor of Ramallah, who is dapper and wears a suit and is dignified and charismatic and funny—essentially all the things the West would want a mayor in Palestine to be, and yet the West rejects him. I was compelled to show the viewer Palestine, and Ramallah specifically, through this mayor’s eyes. It would never be my job or within my abilities to show all of Palestine or all of Ramallah, especially as someone who’s an outsider, but I could always show you something through him.
Filmmaker: The film had its world premiere at the True/False Film Fest this past March, one of the last in-person festivals before the pandemic shut everything down. Prior to that, were you thinking of how the festivals you applied to might help shape and contextualize your film? I imagine there are specific festivals that you were targeting, even if just for outreach purposes down the line.
Osit: I would love Mayor to be alongside any film that might come up in a Google search for films about this part of the world. The reason I was compelled to make the film was due to what I see as a real dearth of films engaging with this part of the world with any complexity. I don’t think that’s a problem for films made by Palestinians—those films are fantastic). I’m talking about Western filmmakers who are coming in and making one-dimensional films that are focused on suffering or victimhood (at best) and are centered around terrorism (at worst).
Of course, there are lots of wonderful films by Israeli filmmakers too, of both the documentary and fiction variety, but they tend to prioritize the complexity of Israeli identity and Israeli guilt centered around occupation. So, even in those films, the Palestinians become background players, mere dressing for the more complicated feelings of Israeli protagonists. There are only a handful of films I’ve seen that focus on Palestinians’ perspectives, that seek to share the complexity of Palestinians and let a Western audience understand that these stories exist.
I feel as though Palestine may be the last bastion of American ignorance. It’s shocking to me how little people will find out about Palestine over the course of their otherwise robust global education. They have friends who are either liberal or Conservative and who really have no sense of dimensionality about that part of the world. When I would describe Ramallah to people and tell them that Christians were there originally, it comes as such a shock (even I was shocked when I visited the city for the first time). The first time I visited, I was asking people why Christmas was such a big deal there, and a Palestinian friend of mine told me, “Well, Jesus was born about ten minutes away. He’s a hometown hero.”
My own ignorance is something I wanted to interrogate in the film first. I wanted to hold other people’s ignorance safely, to not judge them for not knowing much about this part of the world. I think that we’re very quick to be upset at people if they don’t know things, or if they don’t have an education about certain things. I didn’t make the film to educate anyone. I made it to provide an emotional experience that might compel you to want to educate yourself.