Espionage, deception, paranoia, and betrayal –key elements of the thriller genre – often translate so effortlessly to fictional narrative that it merely requires the skill of a good, genre-savvy craftsman to supply the tension and suspense necessary to convey them. But when portrayed in documentary format, these features resonate in a different fashion. The playing field changes. Instead, the emphasis lends itself to documentation over dramatization – a presentation of the material as opposed to representation or in some realm of metaphor.
The Green Prince- a new documentary that’s title is the nickname of Islamic defector, Mosab Hassan Yousef, who happened to be the son and heir apparent of Hamas cofounder Sheikh Hassan Yousef- aims to employ both narrative strategies. Taking cues from the politically-inclined Errol Morris documentaries (especially Standard Operating Procedure, Morris’s infamous exposéof Abu Ghraib), The Green Prince negotiates the tough terrain of fiction and nonfiction storytelling at once by presenting Yousef’s story in such a way that it represents the psychological trauma he went through serving as a source for the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service that was formed in 1949.
Sitting in front of a dark background, chiaroscuro lighting unevenly streaked across his face (and yes, in spite of the man’s notoriety, we see his face), Yousef recounts his journey into the fray of espionage and false identities, pausing to reveal startling confessions and harsh truths about the strife he endured and the values and ethical dilemmas he had to forsake or overcome. Shame is the main through line and feeling; not only the shame of Yousef abandoning his immediate family, but some personal trauma like a sexual assault he had to hide for years.
Yousef had been arrested by Israeli authorities in the late ‘80s (when Hamas came into being), but it was in 1996 that his incarceration yielded an interesting result. He discovered that the Shin Bet’s interrogation methods weren’t nearly as inhumane as Hamas’s. He started to question his corps, believeing that he was “living a lie”and playing for the wrong team. At least this is Yousef’s rationale, one that The Green Prince, despite being based on Yousef’s memoir “Son of Hamas”,doesn’t really take time to unpack. The film would have done itself justice if it spent a bit more time to understand in detail why Yousef chose to defect, instead of summarizing his grave decision in a few sentences that veer towards the perfunctory.
Luckily, Israeli-born writer-director Nadav Schirman stays on track and keeps this documentary away from distracting tangents or tedious digressions in argument. Yousef is a well-spoken subject, bearing a stark stare that withholds unspeakable secrets. His counterpart, Shin Bet handler Gonen Ben Itzhak, is the secondary subject of The Green Prince. He speaks frankly about Yousef, the Shin Bet and his eventual disbandment from the very organization that brought him and the son of Hamas together. Itzhak serves as counterpoint to Yousef’s testimony, that is to say he provides a more offhand perspective on working in espionage: “it’s a game,”Itzhak claims.
What’s fascinating about these two subjects is that they both, despite having varying dispositions, admit to be traitors to a salient organization in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Yousef left Hamas- what he calls “our [sic] family business”- while Itzhak left the Shin Bet namely due to, what the Israeli service may have deemed, a too-comfortable cooperation with The Green Prince. Against the will of his senior officers, Itzhak met with him alone in the middle of nowhere to discuss business, while subsequently providing his source with vacation time.
Some viewers might imagine this story- fraught with moral dilemmas, contradictory characters, and Greek tragedy-like themes- would do better as a strict thriller. There’s enough depth and tension in The Green Prince’s premisethat, unfortunately, Schirman’s expository style can only retain so much of. Since a majority of the documentary consists of Yousef and Itzhak’s head-on interviews, most of the themes are relayed verbally as opposed to a clever arrangement of images or plot structure. Granted, Schirman implements archival footage, UAV surveillance, and his own reenactments to piece historical events, political incidents, and personal anecdotes together and, in effect, achieve a kind of immediacy. It’s not exactly an ingenious device- it makes the movie feel a bit like a Discover Channel special at times- but editors Joe Alexis and Sanjeez Hathiramani maintain the pace.
What we learn is that Yousef and Itzhak sought and achieved, in their collaboration, a “bond of truth”. That’s what they were after; gathering some sort of validated perspective on the longstanding Israel-Palestine conflict and, in the process, resisting the murky ideologies manifested in their organizations. In return, the two men forged a new family. It is stated at the end credits that Yousef, who now lives in the United States, is referred to by Itzhak’s children as “Uncle Mosab”. Back at home, however, his parents publicly denounce him. This conflict has never been short on irony.