By Michael Fox
The nail-biting saga of a Palestinian informant for Israel, Mosab Hassan Yousef’s bestselling 2010 memoir, Son of Hamas, is the stuff of movies.
A narrative feature is indeed in the works, Yousef revealed during a July visit to San Francisco. But any actor will have a difficult time matching Yousef’s unblinking intensity in the taut documentary, “The Green Prince.”
The well-received opening-night film of this summer’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, “The Green Prince” opens Friday, Oct. 10 as part of its national theatrical release.
The film deploys reenactments, archival footage, a tense soundtrack and mesmerizing interviews with Yousef and his Shin Bet handler Gonen ben Yitzhak (conducted in English on a set in Germany) to relate the Palestinian’s story from eldest son of moderate Hamas cofounder Sheikh Hassan Yousef to double agent to self-exile without a country or a friend.
“The Green Prince” emphasizes the relationship between Yousef and ben Yitzhak more than the book did, reaching its emotional peak when the Shin Bet agent stands up for the Palestinian informant at an acutely vulnerable moment. This gesture cemented the bond between the two men and, in the context of seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian relations, no doubt played a role in the audience awards for “The Green Prince” at festivals from Sundance to Moscow.
Amidst the Gaza war, the SFJFF crowd at the Castro was similarly moved to give a standing ovation to the principals and Israeli filmmaker Nadav Schirman. In a group interview the next day, Yousef said he appreciated the response of Jewish audiences but squashed the idea that he acted in a uniquely heroic way or anticipated any reward.
“I am sure that I’m not the only Arab who doesn’t want to kill Jews,” Yousef said. “And I’m sure I’m not the only Arab who helped the Israeli intelligence to stop the killing and the madness. I’m sure there are thousands of sources risking their lives on a daily basis, and many of them believe in what they’re doing. They’re not doing it for selfish desires.”
His intent in penning Son of Hamas – which Yousef said is available for free in the Arab world over the Internet and has been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times – was to inspire readers to get past the dogma peddled by their leaders.
“The goal is not to be their model and encourage them to work for the Israeli intelligence and do the same exact things,” he said earnestly. “The goal is to inspire them to think for themselves, first of all, and to question their own truths, and to keep evolving and growing. I hope many people who live in the free world demonstrate our freedoms and encourage the rest of the world to demonstrate their freedoms as well, no matter what the cost is.”
“The Green Prince” is part of a recent wave of films probing the shadowy world of spooks – all well worth seeking out – that includes the gripping Palestinian informant-Israeli handler dramas “Bethlehem” and “Omar” and the revealing Israeli documentary “The Gatekeepers,” consisting of interviews with former heads of the Shin Bet.
Yousef’s friend-for-life Gonen ben Yitzhak and director Nadav Schirman participated in the interview, but Yousef (who converted to Christianity after arriving in the United States) provided the pithiest and most personal comments.
“The writing of Son of Hamas was very pricey,” he noted. “It cost me everything. Usually authors or writers enjoy and celebrate when they have New York Times bestsellers or become international bestsellers. It was great that the book did well and the word was out, and many people got the chance to learn about my journey. But there was no room for celebration because I lost my family.”
In fact, Yousef confided, “I knew before publishing the book that it’s going to be successful but also I’m going to lose everything important that I have.”
Almost, but not quite. There’s his friendship with ben Yitzhak, which includes visiting the Israeli’s home and meeting his family.
Michael Fox is a freelance film reviewer, specializing in Jewish films.