As we move toward 2020 and a presidential election, what better time to look back at the fight it took for women to gain the right to vote — and how sectors of the American female population were overlooked, despite their contributions to the struggle. The show is structured by chronology and themes:
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My personal anxiety had started in November 2016, on Veterans Day. It was just a week after the Election. In reaction to Trump’s win, I had opined on how his administration would portend for American Jews. “We are part of the other,” I warned.
“How do we build an America that’s ready for the next pandemic? Frontline communities have always known about the lack of access to healthcare and housing. We’ve tried to raise the alarm about these challenges. The response has not been acceptable.”
Two years ago, when traveling was a regular occurrence, I took the train from New York to Washington, D.C., to attend a Jewish conference. I looked forward to several days of panels on Israel, American politics, social justice, and numerous other topics.
Upon exiting Union Station, I got in line to wait my turn for a cab. As I looked up, I saw the Capitol dome, its stunning white architecture framed by a clear blue sky.
It took my breath away.
It certainly wasn’t the first time I had seen it, either from a distance or close up. Yet, like a tourist in Manhattan staring at the lights in Times Square on a busy evening, I was enthralled. I was also moved and awed by its majesty.
That moment came back to me clearly as I watched the horrific events of January 6.
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Director David Osit shifts that narrative in his new documentary “Mayor.” Osit follows the daily schedule of Musa Hadid, who presides over Ramallah with intention and devotion that earns him hearty welcomes from citizens. He is a constant presence on the streets of his metropolis.
In opening shots, Osit’s camera pans the streets of Ramallah, accompanied by a swelling musical score and urban imagery equivalent to a Woody Allen ode to Manhattan. Humor is integral to Osit’s approach, although occurrences facing the residents are anything but funny. Hadid’s engaging personality gives Osit the perfect interlocutor for his story. It’s easy to imagine Hadid as a modern-day Fiorella LaGuardia, the kind of a guy who would read the Sunday funnies to kids if it was called for.
Ramallah, a historically Christian city, serves as the seat of the Palestinian government. It is at the epicenter of Palestinian commerce and culture. It is also ringed by Israeli settlements.
Storefronts of various establishments, from the Café de la Paix to Popeyes, are shown. Coca-Cola ads pop up alongside meticulously landscaped areas. The sound of church bells and the call of muezzin are accompanied by the visual juxtaposition of a cross and a minaret.
The key event connecting the various story threads concerns detailed plans for the annual Christmas celebration, including an outdoor concert, a tree lighting, the arrival of Santas, a parade, and a children’s activity. (There is a Plan B if it rains.)
During the time period when Osit worked on the film, several important events occurred. These are interwoven throughout, via news from the television or directly in conversations. When told that Trump will announce Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the American embassy is being moved from Tel Aviv, Hadid comments, “We’re doomed.”
Meetings between the Mayor and staff members occur outside, in his car, and at Ramallah’s City Hall, established in 1908. Ongoing dialogues include how the city should be branded (Hadid is more concerned with infrastructure.), new doors needed for an elementary school, beautifying the old town with benches, and the daily humiliations from Israeli rule. “We are living under an occupation with hardly any help from the outside, and no sources of income,”Hadid underscores.
Yet, despite the ongoing ordeals, Hadid keeps his eye on whatever ball he is juggling. When he visits a class of third graders to check out the “door situation,” he stays focused on the task at hand – even as a radio blares the news that “the Israeli army has arrested seven citizens across the West Bank.”
Hadid comes from one of the five founding Christian families of Ramallah. His dedication to the city is palpable. His goal is to be a “pragmatic leader.” Hadid understands the situation that he and his city are trapped in. Coming from a background in civil engineering, municipal services – rather than political statements – are his priority.
When the Israelis close off the entrance to Ramallah, raw sewage begins to fill the streets. Hadid has the pavement immediately washed down. Dealing with the ramifications of settlers polluting Palestinian irrigation water and burning olive trees are all part of a day’s work. However, Hadid does not shy away from speaking about facts on the ground. In response to a dumpster fire of burning tires, he states wearily, “We need permanent solutions.”
Despite the constant pressures, the tree lighting ceremony holds Hadid’s full attention. His philosophy is clear: “Remember to make space for joy until we get freedom and independence.” Hadid leads his constituents in their national anthem and then asks for a moment of silence for the dead. Simultaneously, he takes notice of two unlit bulbs.
Ramallah, like other cities, hosts delegations from foreign countries. Speaking with a group of German parliamentarians, Hadid points out the problems of being a mayor on occupied land. He explains that in 2002, Israelis invaded Area A and demolished the city’s infrastructure. An assistant emphasizes that it has taken fifteen years to get permission for a cemetery to get built. “It’s not nuclear weapons. It’s a cemetery,” he adds dryly. (Osit continually uses humor to highlight the negatives.) To German suggestions of personal exchanges between Palestinians and Israelis on a local level, Hadid stresses, “It’s about dignity, which is not negotiable.”
The audience does get to see an Israeli and Palestinian interaction, and it’s devastating. After the embassy move, there are Israeli incursions into the West Bank, including Ramallah. This results in the invasive presence of soldiers in the town square, as they approach City Hall. At 7 in the evening, shots are fired. An arrest is made, tear gas canisters explode, and smoke fills the night sky. Israeli soldiers take selfies in front of the Christmas tree, oblivious to the pain they are causing. In response, Palestinian rock-throwing begins as they retreat.
In a quiet voice, Hadid asks Osit, “David, do you think people in America know or hear about what’s happening here?” He then answers his own question with the assertion, “People don’t know about us.”
In a featured panel at the 2020 OtherIsrael virtual film festival, Osit spoke about his efforts to show Ramallah through the eyes of its citizens and Hadid; working to balance the tragic with the comic. In expressing his motivation behind the film, Osit stated, “I always understood Judaism to be deeply rooted in human rights.”
An end credit dedicates “Mayor” to the memory of Palestinian filmmaker and journalist Yaser Murtaja (1987-2018).
When Annette Bening and Bill Nighy are featured in a film examining the dissolution of a marriage, expectations are high. In “Hope Gap,” there are truths presented, questions to be parsed, and beautiful seascapes featuring white cliffs. Yet, something remains off.
The opening interior scenes feel like a filmed play. Conversation and actions have the quality of being typically British (Bening adopts an English accent), but before long, this viewer got the feeling that I’d been dropped into “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
It’s clear early on that the characters of Grace and Edward are operating on different wave lengths. Despite the outwardly comfortable scene of two adults at their respective computers, with one making tea for the other — the dialogue reveals Grace’s dissatisfaction and Edward’s resignation to the ongoing routine. Grace works on her anthology of poems; Edward diligently edits and re-edits Wikipedia entries — an activity that Grace casually dismisses.
Grace presents as acerbic, to the point of bullying her husband. Trying to elicit some form of enthusiasm from Edward about planning a dinner celebration for their impending twenty-ninth anniversary, the interaction quickly devolves from passive aggression to pure aggression on the part of Grace.
It is revealed that Grace has always been trying to get Edward to be more emotionally available. Resorting to outrageous and physical behavior in an attempt to extract some evidence of feeling from him (“I want a real reaction.”), she is met with an infuriating low-key response from Edward. He states matter-of-factly, “You want something I haven’t got.”
The narrative is “inspired” by writer and director William Nicholson’s experience with the end of his parents’ marriage. (The script was adapted from Nicholson’s play.) Their son, Jamie, (Josh O’Connor, who will be recognized by PBS fans) is a twenty-something who lives alone in London, with relationship issues of his own.
Jamie is used as a go-between by both Grace and Edward. The difference in their world views and attitudes is reflected in how they relate to their son. Grace longs for regular weekend visits; Edward is somewhat detached, stating flatly, “He has a life of his own.”
Williamson said that in developing the text, he wanted to delve into the psychological impact of a divorce on an adult child. He said, “If you’re grown up and your parents split up, it makes you rethink the basics of your childhood.”
We see a flashback through Jamie’s memory. He is a very young child at the family’s favorite beach spot, the cove of Hope Gap. He is happily swinging between each parent, holding their hands.
However, the signs of an imperfect match have been in place for a long while. When Edward explains to his son the circumstances of how he met Grace, he reflects on the marriage as a probable mistake from the beginning.
There is another woman, and has been for a year. She is the mother of a student that Edward had been giving additional instruction to. It’s not something that he went looking for, or a crazy midlife fling. Rather, it’s the comfort and refugee in a partner who is willing and able to accept him for exactly who he is.
Edward invites Jamie home for a Saturday, with the express purpose of having him there when he announces his departure to Grace. A bag is packed and he’s ready to leave. Echoing the history lesson Edward had retreat from Moscow: “The weak had to be abandoned so that the strong could survive.”
Jamie tries to act as a support to his two parents, who both use him callously. Yet, the upheaval is also a wake-up call for him. He begins to examine how elements of his mother’s and father’s behavior have set him up to potentially repeat negative emotional patterns.
Beyond being an analysis of a marital breakup, there is a clear focus on how children are influenced and impacted by the life choices that their parents make.
In the beginning of the movie, it appears that Grace is the realist in the marital equation. She knows something is missing, but really doesn’t have a clue. For her, the “marriage isn’t dead.” Bening plays her role without vanity, as she navigates the emotional breakdown of the partner who had previously appeared fully in charge.
As Edward transitions into a new relationship, Grace and Jamie are forced to move forward, until they arrive at the other side. Along the way they recognize, in their own respective fashions, that letting go isn’t easy.
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