A few hours before I’m due to meet Nadav Schirman to discuss his documentary The Green Prince, I receive an email that throws all preparation out the window. The film tells Mosab Hassan Yousef’s story, the son of a founding member of Hamas who worked secretly for Israeli internal security for a decade. After he moved to America, converted to Christianity and revealed his past by publishing a book The Son of Hamas, documenting his experiences, he has lived a life permanently at risk of reprisals. Understandably, his movements have to be kept relatively quiet. To my surprise, Mosab will be there as well for the interview.
Filmmaker and subject are tucked away in the back room of a private members club in central London. A winding journey through the lounge, restaurant and out a security door takes me to them. They’re seated around a large round table in an otherwise empty room waiting patiently. Nadav is the more open at first, happy to take the lead on the film he wrote and directed. Mosab, a softly spoken man in his mid-thirties prefers to listen before joining the conversation.
We discuss the remarkable year The Green Prince has had, opening first at Sundance where it picked up the Audience Award before moving onto a string of international festivals including London. Nadav has certainly found the process to be an interesting one. “It’s very different and that’s the fascinating aspect of witnessing the premieres at these festivals. For example, when the film opened in America there was a lot of emotion, a lot of tears. People really felt hope. I remember Q&As where people couldn’t even ask Mosab questions because they were tearing up”.
What about other parts of the world though? For Nadav at least, the experience was similar but subtly different. “In Moscow, the audience awarded the film the audience prize as in America but for very different reasons. In Russia, the Israel-Palestine conflict doesn’t occupy so much space in their consciousness. They responded very strongly to the fact that both Mosab and Gonen [Mosab’s Israeli intelligence handler who put his own neck on the line to come forward and vouch for him at his US asylum hearing] were individuals that had the courage to go against their own systems”.
Home territory proved even more receptive. Nadav looks almost blissful as he thinks back. “In Israel it was extraordinary the reception. I was very anxious. It was my home turf and I didn’t know how people were going to respond. As the credits went up, I went on stage and there was some applause. Then I called Mosab and Gonen to the stage and there was a spontaneous standing ovation of eight to ten minutes which never happens. It wasn’t for me, it wasn’t for the film. It was for Mosab and Gonen”.
Nadav is an experienced filmmaker who’s been on stage to present his movies before. The Green Prince is his third documentary following The Champagne Spy in 2007 and In the Dark Room in 2013. For Mosab it’s different. He’s been interviewed repeatedly since his book broke in 2010 but this is the first time it’s been put on film and he can’t have the same distance as Nadav. It’s his life quite literally under the camera lights after all. It’s no surprise that his reaction to the film’s response is more conflicted. Initially he sounds pleased. “It’s encouraging to see people’s support from all different paths of life; people in the west, people in the east, Christians, Jews, even some Muslims”.
However, there’s clearly a toll for Mosab. “It’s encouraging to see that they are touched by the story but what exactly they see is something I cannot control. Some people see an inspiration, some see heroic work, and some see it as betrayal. I am none of this. I was under certain circumstances and acted on my knowledge at that time. I did everything in my ability to find good in worst situations. I don’t want to be perceived as a hero and I don’t want to be perceived as a traitor”.
Inevitably, this has happened to some extent. It’s not every day the son of one of the leading lights in Hamas is revealed to be an Israeli spy. At one stage in the film, Gonen equates the situation to the son of the Israeli Prime Minister spying on his father for Hamas. This is high stakes espionage where lives are on the line. Mosab is not unaware of the bind this creates. “I don’t want people to twist the story to serve their political or religious agendas, but unfortunately I cannot control it”.
Is it possible to remove the politics out of a film set in one of the most fraught regions on the planet right now? Nadav believes it is to an extent. “The story that touched us and that we wanted to tell was a very human story. The politics is just the background. We were very careful to extract any politics out of this. As much as you can”. He’s not blind to the difficulties though. “It’s a very volatile issue which for some reason occupies the whole world. Everyone is looking at this little region, and then to tell a human story which comes from there, one would have to be naïve to say it’s not a political film”. Just before he slips into contradictions, he sits back and with a sly grin adds “So I guess I’m naïve because for me it’s absolutely not. It’s the power of the human heart and mind to transcend these boundaries of politics and religion.”
Given the problems it’s caused, it’s a wonder Mosab wanted the story out there at all. After a decade of service for the Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security service), he was jaded from the constant effort his double role required. His information proved invaluable to Israel time and again, though he always insisted it must be used to prevent killings. Sent on extended leave, he wound up in America where he converted to Christianity and eventually came out publicly with his story. As he’d worked for Hamas, even if he’d actually been on the other side, the Americans tried to deport him to what would most likely have been an immediate and unpleasant death. It was at this stage that Gonen broke convention and came out to speak up for his former charge.
For all the reasons someone might decide to reveal their secrets, Mosab’s initial motivation was more straightforward. “I had an accident and I started to think if something happens to me I might never get a chance to share with the public what I witnessed. If you look at my journey, I was and am a truth seeker. I wanted to know why we were suffering the first Palestinian Intifada, why my father was arrested, why we had to go through a lot of pain. Then why Hamas hurt our own people, why they don’t have mercy on each other”.
His voice remains calm and composed as he speaks. It’s clearly a question he’s thought about frequently. “The situation in the Middle East has seen much bloodshed. It’s not just a political conflict. We’re talking about a new generation of children witnessing brutality. They don’t understand the cause and their perception of reality and life has been distorted. There is a sense of responsibility. I asked a friend of mine to come and start writing for me. The goal was not to publish anything. It was to document the events of my life in case something was to happen. Afterwards, I became more convinced to publish the book. First of all for my family to see, then for my nation and the Israeli nation, and for the rest of the world. I’m not saying my perception is perfect, but I’m assuming none of them lived in Hamas and in Israeli intelligence. I felt it was important to share. I hope it was not a mistake”.
It’s not hard to see why Nadav was drawn to the story. Previous work (The Champagne Spy) had looked at Mossad (the Israeli national intelligence agency) but here was something much more tangible. “A friend of mine alerted me to Son of Hamas and I read it in two hours. Two things gripped me. One was the insider’s perspective of Hamas. It’s like ISIS; you see the headlines but you don’t really know what’s going on inside. The book was an eye opener in that sense. The other was Mosab’s own journey. When I understood the relationship between Mosab and Gonen I was struck. I was really struck”.
This is an almost odd answer given the way the film is made. It’s positioned very clearly as a thriller. The stark use of colour, dramatic cliffhangers and enigmatic close-ups exude a Jason Bourne vibe, hardly in keeping with the personal story that inspired Nadav. He’s unequivocal on his motivations here. “It’s a theatrical documentary so it’s meant to be played in the cinema. People are going to pay a babysitter, they are going to pay parking, they are going to pay for a ticket so it’s an expensive endeavour. As filmmakers you have various responsibilities. In the same way we felt a responsibility to truthfully tell the story, we also felt a responsibility to the audience. They have to be captivated, touched and entertained. All the cinematic tools are there to serve the story.”
The final word belongs to Mosab. He’s lived the life of the dutiful son, he suffered sexual abuse as a child that his society would not permit him to expose, he’s served time in prison, played an integral role in countless military and intelligence operations, and is now ostracised from his family for his actions. Where does he go next? With a book and now a documentary, is he done with this chapter of his life?
Mosab takes a sip of water before replying. “I don’t know how much strength I have to keep telling the same exact story, but I am still learning about my own journey. Every day I come to a new conclusion; why did I make that irrational decision, why didn’t I follow my mind? I’m still learning why I made those decisions. The story has been told but there are other forms to tell it. I’m hoping others will come on board to help”. He pauses one final time. “The journey isn’t over. My life did not start with the book and end with the documentary. We will see what will unfold down the road”.
The Green Prince opens on 12th December. Read our London Film Festival review here.