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The Green Prince: Sundance Review

The Green Prince Sundance Film Still - H 2014

The Bottom Line

The human journey behind a most unusual collaboration in the Middle East slowly comes into focus in this documentary.

Venue

Sundance Film Festival (World Documentary Competition)

Director

Nadav Schirman

Nadav Schirman's thriller-like documentary is based on the book "Son of Hamas" by protagonist Mosab Hassan Yousef.

The incredible story of Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of one of the founders of Hamas who was an informant for the Israeli secret service for more than 10 years, is staged almost like something out of Syriana or Zero Dark Thirty in Israeli writer-director Nadav Schirman’s new documentary, The Green Prince. Thankfully, the talking-head segments provide enough psychological insight to accompany the countless drone shots and menacing score.

Schirman’s third feature documentary -- after The Champagne Spy, about a son and his Mossad agent father, and In the Dark Room, about celebrity terrorist Carlos the Jackal and his wife and daughter -- is yet another film that explores incredibly complex relationships set against the backdrop of terrorism. And though the political background is fascinating, what finally resonates is that Schirman manages to humanize both Yousef and his Israeli handler, Gonen Ben Yitzhak, who would become an unlikely friend and ally.

Since it’s entirely in (accented) English, this Sundance World Documentary opener should certainly prove a draw for smart nonfiction distributors as well as festivals looking for slickly packaged fare that combines global issues with personal transformation. 

The film, also written by Schirman, is based on Yousef’s book, Son of Hamas, and what the two interviewees say does occasionally sound a tad too devoid of spontaneity, though the very different characters of both do gradually emerge. As the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, one of the key leaders of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, Mosab Yousef hated Israel, the country that put his father in prison for years. As he explains it himself: "Hamas was not just a movement but a family business."

After buying illegal weapons in the mid-1990s, at the age of only 17, Mosab was arrested and found himself in prison in Israel, where Ben Yitzhak, a tough "handler" of the Israeli secret service, Shin Bet, managed to convince him to start working for them as an informant, shedding some light on the techniques used by handlers such as Yitzhak to achieve their goals.

Though it’s clear Yousef, with the nickname the Green Prince, became one of Shin Bet’s most valued assets as soon as he came onboard, the radical psychological transformation that made this possible -- he witnessed Muslims torturing fellow Muslims in prison, among other things -- is somewhat lost in the heterogeneous mix of materials the film proposes.

Footage falls roughly into two categories: brightly lit, candid studio-type interviews with Yousef and Yitzhak, with each in medium close-ups and close-up shots, and illustrative footage that accompanies their stories, some of it archival photos and video (much of it contextual news items as well as some rare shots of the younger Yousef) and some footage that was clearly staged. Much of the latter is "surveillance footage," shot from helicopters or drones, with military-style information, such as blinking target dots, no doubt added in post-production.

The idea behind the contrasting types of material is undoubtedly to underline how dehumanized targets in military operations are actually humans with real feelings (that in turn might conflict with their families, professional sphere or own moral codes), though Schirman, at least in the early stages, gets carried away a little too much by the genre trappings of spy thrillers -- a feeling certainly not unfamiliar to Yousef, who, as evidenced by the boyish glee when he recounts certain episodes, got a kick out of doing things such as swapping a table in a Hamas meeting room with an identical one that was bugged by Shin Bet.  

The film only really finds its footing in the second half, which is not only full of incredible twists and turns that are indeed the stuff of movies but which also finally reveals another important part of Yousef’s transformation: he’s since moved to the U.S. and converted to Christianity. It’s here that the depth of the connection between the two men also finally comes into sharp focus, finally turning The Green Prince into really gripping emotional material as well.

Production: A-List Films, Passion Pictures, Red Box Films, Telepool, Urzad Productions, The Documentary Company, Yes Docu, Sky Atlantic
Writer-director: Nadav Schirman (screenplay based on the book Son of Hamas by Mosab Hassan Yousef)
Producers: Nadav Schirman, John Battsek, Simon Chinn
Executive producers: Thomas Weymar, Sheryl Crown, Maggie Monteith
Directors of photography: Hans Fromm, Giora Bejach, Raz Dagan
Editor: Joelle Alexis
Music: Max Richter
Sales: Submarine Entertainment/Global Screen
No rating, 99 minutes