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Putting Hope in the Hopeless Middle East Conflict -- 'The Green Prince' Review

By Seth Freilich | Film | January 27, 2014 |

By Seth Freilich | Film | January 27, 2014 |

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict often seems hopeless, depressing and without end. This is not new information. And you would expect a documentary steeped in that conflict to just build on that, intentionally or otherwise, by leaning one or the other way or just digging into the mess of it all and further muddling perspectives. The Green Prince, an excellent documentary telling one decade-long story of this conflict, is many things. But first and foremost it’s a story of hope. It shows that, in a decades-long war between religious believers who have been handed down hatred from the generation before, there can be hope that when history eventually gets to write the final chapter of this conflict, it concludes as a story of peace and understanding rather than of hatred and destruction.

The Green Prince tells the story of Mosab Hassan Yousef and Gonen Ben Yitzhak. Mosab is the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, one of the founding members of Hamas and a long-time leader of the West Bank arm of the Palestinian Islamic organization at war with Israel. Gonen was an agent at Israel’s Shin Bet, the nation’s secretive counter-terrorism arm (for a fascinating insight into Shin Bet, check out the doc The Gatekeepers). Specifically, Gonen helps turn and then handle agent-moles. When a young Mosab is arrested for transporting guns, this boy who hates Israel by blood and experience, is asked a simple question by Gonen: “will you work for us?”

Mosab was not, himself, a member of Hamas. But as he explains it, “Hamas was not just a movement, it was my family’s business, a way of life.” And yet, Mosab ultimately says yes, not out of any desire to help Israel or hurt his father or Hamas, but merely as a way to get out of Israeli confinement. But when he is transferred from Shin Bet’s holding cells to the “gen pop” prison, he begins to see the needless violence and destructive culture of untrust that drives Hamas and he decides to help Shin Bet, in small but earnest doses.

Once released from prison, Mosab is code-named The Green Prince and becomes the most valuable resource Israeli intelligence has ever had in this conflict. For the next decade, Gonen and Mosab slowly build trust and Mosab, operating from his own moral code rather than that of his father’s or their religion, provides an astonishing amount of intelligence.

The Green Prince has only two talking-head narrators, Gonen and Mosab themselves. It’s not giving anything away (Mosab wrote a book of his story a few years back and made the full TV news interview circuit) to tell you that Mosab no longer lives in the Middle East and Gonen no longer works for Shin Bet. Nevertheless, their willingness to sit and tell their tale is incredibly brave, all the more so because of their unabashed candor. Mosab tells of personal tragedy he could never even tell his parents and candidly walks us through every step of his thinking, showing how he went from where he started to where he wound up. Gonen is similarly candid, detailing the psychological spycraft involved in trying to turn someone into an asset and then moving forward in “handling” that asset, the intersection of security concerns and political motivations, and the betrayal he himself committed.

Director Nadav Schirman probably did not need to do anything other than point cameras at Mosab and Gonen and simply let them tell their story, because it is an amazing, unbelievable story that grips on its own. However, Schirman chose to make the documentary more cinematic, cutting in recreated bits (much like the excellent doc The Imposter) which do not distract from the tale but serve to keep the viewers as visually engaged as they already are aurally engaged by Mosab and Gonen’s narrative. And keeping the narrative focused squarely on Gonen and Mosab wisely keeps the film from alienation. Of course the politics and religion behind this conflict are on the seams of the whole story, but they only bleed into the narrative to the extent necessary to understand these two men’s motivations. The Green Prince is not a political documentary. It necessarily condemns Hamas’ violence, since that violence is what turned Mosab. But it does not touch on the right or wrong of the status of the West Bank, whether there should be a Palestinian state, etc. And this is for the better because it allows the viewer to similarly leave their political and religious beliefs about the conflict at the door and focus on the issue of tactics, morality, and trying to broker peace. This is not a descriptor I employ often or casually throw around, but The Green Prince is an important film. As I said at the top, it takes a miserable, never ending conflict and injects it with hope. Hope that there can one day be understanding and, with that understanding, a brokered and long-lasting peace. That is the legacy Mosab and Gonen’s story deserves.

The Green Prince premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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