The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most polarizing issues of the modern age. It’s a divide that has become entrenched in the cultures of the region, and its ensuing tragedies have left scars across both the countryside itself and those that inhabit it. Mosab Hassan Yousef was a child of this conflict, growing up as the son of a founding Hamas member and hating Israel. Israeli filmmaker Nadav Schirman’s new documentary follows Mosab’s journey from a rage-filled son of Hamas to one of Israel’s most valuable spies, code-named The Green Prince.
The Green Prince (speaking now of the movie rather than the man) is an incredible story told by the two men who lived it: Mosab Hassan Yousef, and his Shin Bet handler, Gonen Ben Itzhak. Picked up by the Israeli military after buying illegal weapons, Mosab is held in a high security prison when he meets Itzhak who asks him, “Will you work for us?” For a Palestinian, to collaborate with Israel is the most shameful thing someone can do. And so Mosab says yes, he will help, knowing in his heart that he will betray Itzhak and Israel. It’s only after spending time in an Israeli prison with militant Hamas members that he begins his transformation from radical to conspirator.
In many ways, Schirman’s third feature film plays out like a modern spy thriller. All the pieces are there: the veteran handler pulling the strings, the recruit risking his life behind enemy lines. And yet, at its core, The Green Prince is a talking head documentary, but it is a decision borne out of necessity rather than artistic bankruptcy. How else do you tell a story about two organizations that are incredibly secretive? Schirman does what he can to spice things up, scraping up archival footage and intercutting dramatic recreations. All these help keep things kinetic, but at its heart, the film is about two interviews.
Mosab and Itzhak turn in lengthy interviews, covering everything from growing up in the shadow of Hamas, to Shin Bet recruitment tactics, and of course to their own incredible true stories. The interviews are given in unsubtitled English, and both men do an admirable job in a language that is not there own. The interviews do feel extensively rehearsed and while there is certainly an argument to be made about the political biases of the film, the scripted nature of the interviews plays into Schirman’s thriller aesthetic and helps tighten what would otherwise be a very lengthy film.
It can and probably will be argued that The Green Prince is a propaganda piece, and in some ways I suppose it is. The film very quickly establishes its affiliations and, while we get opposing perspectives on the spy world, the film spends little time investigating the politics that are fueling that world. However, I think to make those claims is to mistake what the film is about. The Green Prince is not about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it’s about Mosab and Itzhak.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
The Green Prince will undoubtedly be the source of much political scrutiny. Looking for bias in documentary is important, and we shouldn’t forget that this is an Israeli filmmaker making a film about Israel and Palestine. However, in many ways, Nadav Schirman has not made a political documentary. The Green Prince is not interested in creating a balanced history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; his interest is in the incredible story of Mosab Yousef and Ben Itzhak, and the unlikely bond the two developed in the most hostile of worlds.
A dramatic feature film has already been green lit based on the documentary, and if their smart, they’ll stick to the truth. The Green Prince is an eye-opening look behind the curtain of international espionage, and a heart wrenching retelling of one man’s battle for his own soul.