Docu-thriller probes mind of Palestinian spy for Israel

“The Green Prince,” the adrenalized documentary about a high-level Palestinian informant and his Shin Bet handler, is tailor-made for an entertainment landscape teeming with paranoid spy thrillers and terrorist-obsessed TV series.

Precisely modulated to extract every molecule of tension, this cannily crafted film grants the viewer rare entrée to the cloak-and-Uzi worlds of Israel’s domestic security agency and Hamas.

Mosab Hassan Yousef (left) and Gonen Ben Yitzhak

“Green Prince” opens the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on Thursday, July 24 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.

For most viewers, the visceral voyeurism of watching someone else’s life-and-death risks and decisions will provide sufficient intrigue. But Israeli director Nadav Schirman (“The Champagne Spy”) ultimately goes a step further, subjugating geopolitical implications to the protagonists’ transcendent personal bond.

Adapted from Mosab Hassan Yousef’s 2010 memoir, “Son of Hamas,” the documentary traces the unlikely career of the devoted eldest son of Hamas leader Sheikh Hassan Yousef.

Mosab was arrested by Israeli authorities on various occasions during his adolescence, and his commitment to the Palestinian cause was unshakeable. That is, until 1996, when the 18-year-old discovered in prison that Hamas’ suspicion-fueled mistreatment of Palestinians was worse than anything the Israelis did.

This is a crucial turning point in the film, obviously, but his explanation for agreeing to collaborate with Israel isn’t completely persuasive. While his motives remain perpetually hazy, his actions are not: Yousef regularly informs his Shin Bet liaison, Gonen Ben Yitzhak, about imminent suicide bombings and other planned attacks. (Green Prince is the code name that the Shin Bet gave its upper-echelon informant.)

This high-stakes saga of fear, loathing, betrayal and mistrust, which spanned from 1997 to 2007, is recounted in the past tense through interviews with Yousef and Ben Yitzhak that take the form of direct testimony (and, occasionally, confession) to the audience.

To imbue the film with the urgency of events unfolding before our eyes, Schirman stages and employs re-enactments alongside archival footage.

The various elements are blended with skill and an abundance of dramatic impact, but their effectiveness does begin to wane in the documentary’s latter stages. Until that point, Schirman does a first-rate job of maximizing the feeling of immediacy and camouflaging the fact that the story is being recounted from a distance.

“The Green Prince” arrives some months after Academy Award nominee “Omar,” by Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad, and “Bethlehem,” by Israeli director Yuval Adler. Those two films revolved around mistrustful, leverage-based relationships between a Shin Bet operative and a teenage Palestinian informant.

For anyone who saw those terrific dramas and was not familiar with Yousef’s autobiography, “The Green Prince” inevitably (though not explicitly) suggests the likelihood that his fraught circumstances inspired Abu-Assad and Adler to some degree.

Both “Omar” and “Bethlehem” contemplated the morality of spying on one’s own people as well as the gray area of Israeli intelligence operatives compelling Palestinian youths to do so.

“The Green Prince” grapples with the same thorny issue, filtered through the parameters of ingrained allegiances and national security. Its conclusion, to put it a tad simplistically, is that we should not expect institutions to act in a moral manner. It’s not part of their mission statement.

Individuals, however, are eminently capable of behaving morally. And that, in the end, is the quality that distinguishes the relationship between Mosab Hassan Yousef and Gonen Ben Yitzhak.

Unfortunately, through no fault of its own, the film’s hopeful theme of Israeli-Palestinian connection is undercut by the recent murders of teenagers and current fighting between Israel and Hamas. The way the film is viewed — and the opening-night mood — will likely be different than the festival presumably envisioned.


“The Green Prince” screens at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, July 24 at the Castro in S.F., 6:05 p.m. July 26 at the CineArts in Palo Alto, 7 p.m. Aug. 3 at the California in Berkeley and 6:30 p.m. Aug. 8 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. The director will appear at the S.F. and Palo Alto screenings. In Hebrew with English subtitles (Rated R for language and some sexual content, 99 minutes) 


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Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.