By Sam Inglis @24fpsuk
I’m not sure that many documentaries are naturally suited to the cinema. Their stories are often big, but all too frequently the visual treatment of them seems small. The Green Prince proves no exception in this respect.
Mosab Hassan Yousef has lived a fascinating life. He’s the eldest son of Hassan Yousef, one of the founders of Hamas, and as such he was brought up in a radical family and in a movement that has sanctioned heinous violence to attempt to achieve its goals. At 17 Mosab was arrested after buying guns, with which, he says, he planned to kill Israelis. After his arrest, Mosab was interrogated by Gonen Ben Yitzhak, a member of Shin Bet: Israel’s secret service. Ultimately, Mosab was turned and became an agent for Shin Bet, working in the top levels of Hamas and feeding information back to Gonen.
This story is related by both Mosab and Gonen in the first person in talking head interviews, interspersed with surveillance footage, some footage of the younger Mosab with his father, news footage and some more impressionistic reconstructions.
For me, the visuals are where the film comes a little unstuck. The fact that there are reconstructions in the mix and a lack of any contextualising captions means that you’re not always entirely certain of what you’re watching. Is all the surveillance footage real? Are there reconstructions mixed in with the footage of the younger Mosab? I never felt it was entirely clear. The moments that are clearly reconstructed serve very little purpose. They don’t seem to be there to illuminate details otherwise unavailable to the filmmakers, nor are they used to, in Thin Blue Line style, visualise differing accounts of a single event.
For much of the running time I found myself almost totally disinterested in the visuals. Yes, a few moments of seeing Mosab with his father are interesting, and there are also moments when Mosab or Gonen’s faces tell more of the story than just their words. However, these moments are few and far between, for the most part I’d have been perfectly happy to experience this film as a radio programme.
This is not to say that The Green Prince is a total loss. Mosab is a legitimately fascinating guy, and watching him try to explain his life is, at times, riveting. It seems that he walked a moral tightrope every day for a decade, betraying his father day in, day out and working for an organisation that would likely be seen as literal devils by the people he was surrounded by. Mosab still seems to struggle with parts of this, and as he says that he saved many lives through his undercover work, true as I’m sure it is, I can see a man still trying to convince himself.
The other most interesting aspect of the story comes from the growing trust and, eventually, affection between Mosab and Gonen. The film’s third act tells the story of Mosab’s life after he left the agency following Gonen’s firing and escaped to the US. It’s then that we see just how deep that connection runs.
While The Green Prince tells a tense story well its scope feels limited, and there are moments at which I wish it had been a little more probing. Director Nadav Schirman doesn’t hold the Shin Bet up to much scrutiny. Nor does he dig very far into Israel’s side of the blame for the situation in that part of the world, nor the moral implications of that for either Mosab or Gonen. As interesting as this film is, I can’t help feeling there’s a wider and more cinematic tale to be told here.
The Green Prince is on general release from Friday 12th December