Nadav Schirman's documentary about the son of a Hamas founder explores espionage, terrorism and the personal cost inflicted on those involved.
It’s a chillingly effective way to get noticed: Declare that cooperating with Israel is the most shameful thing you can do as a Palestinian — even more than sexually assaulting your own mother, and that your goal in life “was to kill Israelis, but Allah had other plans for me.”
Those are the words of Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, one of the founders and leaders of Hamas, in the opening minutes of The Green Prince, a documentary that takes viewers inside the worlds of Hamas and Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, in the 1990s and 2000s.
Nadav Schirman, the director of the film, opening locally later this month, says he felt compelled to tell the story of Yousef — a favored son who became the Shin Bet’s most valuable informer for 10 years during that period — and the relationship between him and his Shin Bet handler, Gonen Ben Yitzhak, because of the visceral reaction he had to Yousef’s memoir, Son of Hamas, upon which the film is based.
“I realized how little I knew” about the inner workings of the intelligence-gathering side of the conflict, he said in an interview. “When I understood the nature of the relationship” between Yousef and ben Yitzhak, “my whole body was covered in goose bumps — I felt a very tangible sense of hope.”
This wasn’t the first time that a book played a critical role in Schirman’s work. “I was reading a book on how to make a documentary as I was making my first film” — 2007’s The Champagne Spy, about the relationship between a Mossad agent and his son who discovers his occupation, he said with a laugh.
On-the-job training obviously suited him: The film won numerous awards around the world, and led to a second documentary, In the Dark Room, the 2013 film about the terrorist Carlos “The Jackal” and his wife and daughter. The Green Prince has also won a number of awards, including the Audience Award in World Cinema Documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and it has been a huge hit in Israel, where it is still showing in theaters, four months after its initial release.
Schirman acknowledges that it might appear that he is drawn only to exploring the shadowy world of espionage and terrorism. But, he emphasized, “it’s not just about that. It’s about relationships put under a great deal of pressure — the personal cost of espionage in The Champagne Spy, family relationships in In The Dark Room — and in The Green Prince, the son puts his father in jail to save him. It’s almost Shakespearean.”
The relationship between the Yousefs is covered in painful detail — Mosab went from being his father’s right-hand man to being disowned by family and friends — but the film’s central focus is squarely on the evolution of Mosab Yousef and ben Yitzhak. We see Yousef freely admit that he initially planned to kill his handler as soon as possible after he was arrested on gun charges as a teenager. And we see ben Yitzhak deal with the fallout of being accused of treason and disavowed by Shin Bet for breaking agency protocol to protect his informer.
Schirman’s interviews with Yousef are conducted in a stark soundstage with 30-foot concrete walls in Germany, where the Jerusalem-born Schirman now lives. He said he designed it to illustrate how “the choices they made led them to be isolated from their lives” — Yousef from his family and the “family business” of Hamas, ben Yitzhak from Shin Bet, where, as the handler for Yousef, he was one of the agency’s rising stars.
Archival footage is put to effective use. Israel Defense Forces surveillance video of Yousef, complete with night vision and targeting markings, confirms that Yousef’s movements were tracked at all times by Israel. B-roll from various news crews shooting stories and interviews about Sheikh Yousef shows father and son in the forced intimacy that prison provides. “His father was on TV all the time — he was running for election from prison,” Schirman said. “They were documenting this guy unknowingly.”
Even the recreations have been imbued with an unusual level of authenticity. To re-enact the night that Mosab Yousef was arrested, a co-producer who was formerly a commander on an Israeli submarine was able to bring in a Special Forces unit. And Yousef plays himself in the early scenes — a hooded, handcuffed figure in isolation waiting to be interrogated.
Ultimately, Schirman succeeds in making The Green Prince the most unlikely of buddy movies. He parallels the protagonists’ difficult epiphanies that their long-held beliefs may not always be the right thing — Yousef renouncing the nihilistic violence of the intifada and of Hamas members torturing their own in prison, ben Yitzhak realizing that Shin Bet’s zero-sum equation of intelligence-gathering would never value the lives of its informers as much as the information they provided. He allows each man to detail how their reliance on each other developed into a friendship, which no matter how unlikely, continues to this day.
“If the film inspires people to look at things a little differently, that is what it’s all about,” Schirman said. “Most people get their information from the news in 30-second segments. We spent three years making this so that the audience can give up 100 minutes for us to tell them this story — and maybe open them up to a different perspective.”
IF YOU GO
The Green Prince
Opening Sept. 19 at the Ritz Five
Second and Walnut streets, Philadelphia