PARK CITY, Utah — At the conclusion of Dror Moreh’s remarkable Shin Bet documentary “The Gatekeepers” my chief desire was to bury my head beneath a bundle of coats. There will never be peace and Israel is on a self-destructive course toward its own inevitable doom.
“The Green Prince,” the new documentary from Nadav Schirman (“The Champagne Sky”), which debuted Thursday night at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is a rebuke to that film’s negativity. Peace and security through enlightenment is attainable, and this is the case study that proves it.
Not content to be a mere political rallying cry, “The Green Prince” is a fascinating, exhilarating and fundamentally juicy story about espionage, persuasion and global affairs. Psychologists will crib from its lessons for years. The hook: the eldest son of one of Hamas’ founders was working as a Shin Bet spy for a decade. He was not angry at his family, he did not have a self-destructive streak. He did it because… well… exploring why he did it is what this movie is all about.
The film is shot in a clean, precise manner — talking head interviews mixed with recreation footage and a little bit of primary source video. It seems, at first, like it’s just going to be a bunch of talk.
Doing most of the talking is Mosab Haasan Yosef, truly one of the more complicated individuals I’ve seen as a documentary subject. Our guide to his story is his former Shin Bet liaison, Gonen Ben Yitzhak. It isn’t until halfway through this briskly paced 95 minute film that you recognize that this is just as much Gonen’s story. Indeed, everything that makes “The Green Prince” so remarkable is that it is about the loyalty, trust and care that two individuals from opposite worlds can give to one another if they have the bravery, righteousness and compassion to do so. And if they do, really, they can change the world.
Mosab’s early life is as you’d expect. He’s brought up to hate Israel — to rape your own mother is considered a minor offense compared to conspiring with Israel. While not a Hamas member (or particularly religious) he decides, at age 17, that he will join the “armed struggle.” His purchase of weapons leads to an arrest, followed by a complicated chess game with the Shin Bet.
He is held in captivity and undergoes intense interrogation (which some groups call psychological torture, but that’s another discussion). He is told he’ll be let go if he agrees to work as a spy. He agrees, thinking that saying so will just get him out. After a transfer to a prison where different groups (like Hamas) are given free reign to rule their own fiefdoms, he realizes he can’t trust anybody, as he is worried that others think he is now a collaborator.
What’s key here, and what makes Mosab important, is that he is wise enough to trust his own moral compass. In the prison he is witness to the ruthlessness and brutality of Hamas thuggery — he knows that this group’s methods are not right. When the second intifada begins and his own father starts publicly supporting suicide bombings, he knows he has to do what he can to stop this.
He still loves his family and refuses, to this day, to fully accept that his father was truly supportive of violence against civilians. He realizes the best way to protect them from reciprocal acts is to become the Shin Bet’s top mole — codename “Green Prince.”
The film, based on Mosab’s 2011 book “Son of Hamas,” goes through chapter after chapter of flabbergasting scenarios concerning his double life. There are bugged coffee tables, meetings, safe houses, drop offs. Each sequence feels ripped from a Tom Clancy novel; to give away too many of the specifics would be something of a crime. What’s most interesting, though, is learning how the Shin Bet deals with new information and then decides whether or not to act. The lengths they go to in order to keep their prize informant secure is extraordinary — with Mosab sometimes agreeing to prison sentences to keep his cover.
So the question remains: Why is he doing this? For money? Well, yes, a little bit, but not much. Certainly not for glory. The son of a Hamas leader is never going to be hailed in Israel, and he’d be killed in Gaza or the West Bank in minutes if his true identity was found. This central puzzle is what fuels the film — to the point that the specificity about Israel and Palestine becomes almost secondary.
Rarely are the intricate layers of mind games so cleanly elucidated, and doled out in such an engrossing, entertaining way
If a space alien who had never heard of Jews or Palestinians or the Balfour Declaration or Meir Kahane beamed to Earth and saw this film, it would still be a tremendous achievement in filmmaking. Rarely are the intricate layers of mind games so cleanly elucidated, and doled out in such an engrossing, entertaining way.
Gonen, the Shin Bet handler, is first seen as somewhat Machiavellian. His goal is to exploit Mosab’s position, and to win his trust by any means necessary. But “The Green Prince” eventually heads to some unforeseeable places. When he is finally exhausted (both as an asset and as a human being) Mosab ends up in San Diego. He converts to Christianity and outs himself to his family. US Homeland Security decides to deport him, which is basically a death sentence. How will Gonen, and Shin Bet, respond?
Well, like I said, this movie ends optimistically. Which is a bit of a surprise, in that the ultra left-wing Sundance festival is usually no place for a film that would allow that Israeli security — even the humanist face of Israeli security — is anything less than tyranny and evil.
I suppose the basic truth of this film — that support of terrorism negates all shred of political virtue — is too powerful to ignore.
Mosab and Gonen’s story is one of those weird “stranger than fiction” tales — chuckles of disbelief were heard at the Sundance screening during some of the more surprising moments. Here’s hoping this film reaches the widest possible audience.