CINEMA: It’s Not Easy Being Green

THE GREEN PRINCE (2014, directed by Nadav Schirmin, 95 minutes, U.S./U.K.)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC A savvy piece of white-knuckle documentary storytelling, The Green Prince tells the true story of Hamas informant Mosab Hassan Yousef and his Israeli spy handler Gonen Ben Yitzhak. Well, true story? Maybe some quotes around that phrase, after all we’re profiling a man who made his reputation lying to everyone in his surrounding community along with his partner, who made a living manipulating turncoats. While director Nadav Schirmin keeps this spy tale taut from beginning to end, the lack of verification of any of the films details remind us that seeing shouldn’t be believing, whether a film touts itself as a documentary or not. But if you’re willing to suspend any disbelief towards this pair of unreliable narrators, The Green Prince spins a riveting tale of friendship, betrayal and shame set amongst the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The film introduces Mosab Hassan Yousef, eldest son of high-ranking Hamas leader Hassan Yousef. Mosab was a teenager whose life is changed after seeing saw his father dragged from the family house in Ramallah by Israeli forces. His anger leads to a small purchase of guns which then leads to his imprisonment in Israeli jail. There, the distrusting treatment Mosab receives from imprisoned Hamas members and pressure from Israeli interrogators leads the young Mosab to act as an informant for the Israeli spy agency, Shin Bet. Mosab then returns to Ramallah and begins to report on the activities he learns about as his father’s right-hand man.

According to Mosab he betrays his father’s trust as a way to stop bloodshed but it is hard to feel we’ve gotten to the bottom on why this man would choose to serve the country that is occupying the land on which he lives. Mosab tells a story of being raped as a child by a man his father trusted and director Schirmin seems to assume we’ll use this fact as an underpinning of Mosab’s motivations. How Mosab’s rape fits into this piece is highly questionable and depends upon some major assumptions the film never sufficiently explores.

Mosab, with hauntingly intense eyes, talks about the increasingly stressful double-life and the growing awareness that this charade can’t last forever and all possible endings are bleak. Gonen has broken rules to protect Mosab but as things get more and more hairy Mosab is left without friend, family or country. It is a harrowing journey, and one that director Schirmin (who specializes in spy docs) illuminates in the now-basic Errol Morris shorthand of droning scores, talking heads and stock footage that defines the documentary form these days, from theatrical features to cheap TV crime shows. Schirmin’s wit only raises its head as he presents the visuals with a green hue that dissipates once Mosab’s usefulness runs its course. More than fictional films, documentaries with drab visual styles can be trumped by a compelling story and the tale told between the intense Yousef and his oddly bemused handler Yithak has the themes and turnarounds of great drama.

With the Israeli-Palastinian conflict again flaring up this summer The Green Prince‘s story of a Hamas son siding with Israel invites suspicion of the film’s agenda and raises the specter of propaganda. The film doesn’t betray much sympathy for the Palestinian cause but actually none of the institutions to whom Mosab reaches out — The Shin Bet, The U.S. or Hamas — take much interest in Mosab’s plight and well-being. What finally saves Mosab is the relationships founded on the human level, giving an unusually sentimental tug to anchor this most intimate of spy thrillers.