It is possible to say with reasonable certainty that Mosab Hassan Yousef is the eldest son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a founder of Hamas and one of its most prominent leaders in the West Bank. We also know that Yousef has denounced Hamas publicly since 2008, when he declared that he had converted to Christianity. He subsequently announced that he had willingly collaborated for a decade with Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service, starting in the mid-1990s. Yousef first made this claim in a book published in 2010, Son of Hamas: A Gripping Account of Terror, Betrayal, Political Intrigue, and Unthinkable Choices. He repeats his story, under a calmer title, in The Green Prince, a film that won an audience award at the 2014 Sundance festival and is now going into theatrical release.
One more certainty: the film, written and directed by Nadav Schirman, presents itself as a documentary. Beyond that, things get murky, starting with the question of what, exactly, The Green Prince documents.
To be absolutely literal, which I think is a good idea in this case, I would describe the film as a record of Yousef’s facial expressions, gestures and tones of voice as he sits in a nondescript room and narrates his story. The Green Prince is also an assemblage of existing records: archival images of Sheikh Hassan meeting with people and making speeches in Ramallah, videos of Hamas street demonstrations, news reports from various scenes of bloodshed, and photographs of a younger Yousef in his father’s company, dating from childhood through his 20s.
During the latter period, Yousef says, he served as his father’s adoring assistant, struggled to protect him from assassination by the Israelis, and also reported to Shin Bet as a matter of conscience and principle on the comings and goings, strategies and operations of Sheikh Hassan’s associates. But this account, however gripping, is precisely what The Green Prince cannot document.
Yousef has nothing to confirm his story except his own words—and he is, if you believe him, an accomplished liar. There is, of course, no physical evidence to prove the tale, nor is there anyone to confirm this narrative except for the second major character in The Green Prince, Gonen Ben Yitzhak, who says in his interview segments that he recruited Yousef and was his handler. A fleshy, broad-faced, grinning man who leans back comfortably in his nondescript room—unlike Yousef, who is slim, long-faced and always leaning in to make a point—Ben Yitzhak tells Schirman’s camera that he no longer serves with Shin Bet, which might be true, or not. No one should rush to say who’s employed by any intelligence agency, or guess how much fact might be included in any story that one of its present or ostensibly former agents puts out. Taking into account another of the film’s admissions against self, we might do well to listen to Ben Yitzhak when he explains that a large part of his job was to manipulate people’s minds.
There is simply no way to be sure of when Yousef started to collaborate with the Israelis, the circumstances under which he agreed to work with them, or even whether he was a Shin Bet informer at all. (He has certainly made himself into a propaganda asset for Israel, but he could have accomplished that without actually having spied on his father—he just had to say he did.) Most important of all, we can’t be sure of Yousef’s motives. He claims he chose to inform against Hamas because he was horrified by the violence it routinely practiced against its own people, and because he considered its tactic of suicide bombing to be nothing but aimless murder. He wanted to save lives, he says, and also stay true to the principles that his father held, or ought to have held.
Could be—but to his credit, Schirman thinks there might be something deeper behind Yousef’s declared convictions. In a moment, I’ll get to the strange, disturbing way The Green Prince digs into this topic. For now, I will merely note that the impossibility of checking Yousef’s story has not prevented those in the pro-Netanyahu, anti-Islam camp from taking it at face value. Nor should the story’s unverifiability stop people in my camp from positing, however provisionally, that it might be true. The reasonable course, at least when dealing with The Green Prince, is to keep doubt in mind but at bay while examining how Schirman tries to make this narrative seem not just plausible but authentic, the better to persuade audiences of something that he and his producers might call the larger truth.
To start, let me consider two aspects of the story that Schirman chooses to minimize. The first is Yousef’s conversion to Christianity. In Son of Hamas, which was published by a leading evangelical press, this conversion is decisive. A chance introduction to the Gospels—which begins, symbolically enough, outside the Damascus Gate—overthrows Yousef’s assumptions about the world and sets his feet on the path of peace. The Green Prince downplays this conversion, though, to the point of making it seem as if Yousef found Jesus only after he’d severed his ties with Shin Bet and relocated to the United States. In this way, Schirman avoids the anti-Koranic polemic of Son of Hamas, but he also narrows the focus of the story, confining it to Muslims (a category tacitly assumed to encompass all Palestinians) and Jews (a category presumably encompassing all Israelis).
Schirman further narrows the focus by saying as little as possible about an arguably significant factor in the relationship between Palestinians and Israelis: millions of the former are under military occupation by the latter. Yes, The Green Prince acknowledges the existence of checkpoints, patrols, arrests and torture. Early in the film, when Yousef recalls his teenage desire for revenge against any Israeli available, he even speaks of “our pain.” But you could not know from The Green Prince that this pain is grounded in Israel’s relentless official program of annexing land and suppressing people.
To gauge the extent of the omission, you might watch Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar (2013), an expertly made thriller about a young Palestinian forced into collaboration, or Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers (2012), an exceptional documentary about Shin Bet’s role in carrying out Israeli policy. In their different ways, both of these films provide ample context. From The Green Prince, you learn only that the Israelis respond to “extremists.” Of course, the Israelis have their “extremists” too, as is mentioned in the blandly worded introductory text; but there is no sign in the film of any of those people (let alone their partners in high office), and it’s not long before Yousef, in his narrative, has forgotten about wanting revenge against them. Thrown into confusion after seeing the true nature of Hamas, he recalls, Yousef says that he “didn’t know what I’m fighting for.”
But why was that disillusionment so deep as to move him to switch sides? (He had been driven half-mad by sleep deprivation, Yousef says, but insists that his choice—made after his release from prison—was not coerced.) The Green Prince encourages you to speculate about this central question by including little disquisitions from Ben Yitzhak about the art of recruitment, in which he explains that it’s necessary to identify and exploit a subject’s weaknesses. What Yousef’s weaknesses might have been, he never says.
Instead, at a critical point in the narrative—just before Yousef’s moment of decision—the film breaks with chronology, introducing a noticeably out-of-place episode from his childhood. When he was 5, Yousef recalls, his father sent him off to harvest olives, so that the boy would feel attached to the land; and there, among friends of the family, Yousef was raped. He could never speak of it to anyone, he says. In his culture, such an admission would have been too shameful.
Like a sleight-of-hand artist forcing a card on a sucker, Schirman uses this story to suggest an entire psychological profile, one that must be full of suppressed rage: against a father who was beyond criticism and yet sent Yousef into this hell; against a family that was blind to what had happened; and even against the olive tree, the ultimate symbol of Palestinian rootedness. Schirman then slips the card back into the deck so that he can produce it with a flourish toward the end of the film, when Yousef speaks of his decision to come forward in 2010 and publicize his alleged work with Shin Bet. That’s the only other time the rape is mentioned.
I would say the same thing about this suggested motive that I say about Yousef’s story: it might be true. All I know is how Schirman positions the episode, and the effect. He implies that Yousef, in his gut, rejected not just Hamas but an entire “culture” that accepts and perpetuates violence out of a misplaced sense of shame.
With that done, the way is clear for Schirman to advance the larger meaning of the story, as he sees it. Against all odds, Yousef and Ben Yitzhak formed a close and trusting bond. (Never mind that Ben Yitzhak cheerfully speaks of toying with Yousef.) When Yousef was in deep trouble, facing deportation from the United States, Ben Yitzhak stepped forward without authorization (in his account) to testify to Yousef’s service in the war against terrorism. Though brought up to hate and fear one another, the two men have proved that Palestinians and Israelis can reach across their lines of division in friendship.
I say, for the last time, that it might be true. As I write these words, though, my heart is not warmed—and not just because Yousef and Ben Yitzhak are opaque figures in the film, who perform rather than reveal their characters. My bigger problem is the report in today’s newspaper that Israel and Hamas are both claiming victory in the Gaza war, as they stand over the corpses of the latest 1,500 civilians. Some triumph.
If you want my opinion—and I think anybody writing about The Green Prince ought to speak plainly—Yousef is not wrong in the film when he accuses Hamas of being a death cult that has done nothing for the Palestinians except prolong their misery. But Schirman is definitely wrong when he pretends, for the sake of a happy ending, that there is no resistance movement apart from Hamas and no compelling reason to resist. It’s easy enough in The Green Prince for a Palestinian and an Israeli to embrace, after one of them has capitulated. Outside the vacuum of this almost fact-free documentary, however, something more than fellow feeling might be needed.
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As the cab driver says expansively to the visiting American businessman in Pascale Ferran’s Bird People, “Paris—byooteefool.” Yes, it is—not that anyone gets to see it. While a mirage of the City of Light wavers on the horizon, Ferran’s characters remain confined to the banality of commuter trains, peripheral highways, airport hotels and corporate meeting rooms. The surroundings are disappointing at best, suffocating at worst; and yet Ferran turns them into the site for a delightfully inventive study of the way we live now.
Bird People is so inventive, in fact, and so surprising that I should tell you little more than the setup. A Silicon Valley executive named Gary (Josh Charles) drags himself off an airplane at Charles de Gaulle and into the airport Hilton, while a housekeeper named Audrey (Anaïs Demoustier) goes about cleaning the rooms. It’s obvious that these characters will eventually meet. Until they do, we watch Gary conclude that he needs to abandon his job and his family, just like that. We also see, in alternating scenes, how the younger and more resilient Audrey copes with demanding supervisors, a long commute and an empty apartment to greet her when she gets back home.
The story’s long first section, which is principally devoted to Gary’s crisis, almost sinks the movie, and not just because of the flatness of Ferran’s American dialogue. That problem would not seem so acute if Charles, an actor best known for the television series The Good Wife, had done something more than deliver a literal transcription of the screenplay. He brings nothing to the character—except for the one thing that Ferran most wants from him, which is a nose that in profile resembles a raptor’s beak. Demoustier, for her part, has the sharp little nib and glittering brown eyes of a sparrow. When, at last, Ferran switches her attention fully to Demoustier’s character, Bird People finally takes off. It’s a moment worth waiting for—and once it’s happened, the movie does not let you down again.
According to Bird People, we’re all transients now, living on the road, seeing nothing but the road and yet, despite our continual movement, longing to escape. We might not get away to anywhere beautiful, like Paris—but thanks to Ferran’s filmmaking, the mere desire can take us someplace droll, unexpected and wonderful.