The Green Prince (Music Box Films, NR)

The-Green-Prince 75If you don’t arrive already interested in the topic, The Green Prince can be a long slog.

 

 

The-Green-Prince 500

The Green Prince is a documentary based on the memoir Son of Hamas by Mosab Hassan Yousef, a Palestinian who worked as an informant for 10 years for the Israeli security agency Shin Bet. There are only two main characters in the film—Yousef and his Israeli handler Gonen ben Yitzhak—and the film consists primarily of a straightforward exposition of Yousef’s work for Shin Bet, told in alternating, direct-to-camera interviews by the two men.

As a presentation of one aspect of Israeli/Palestinian history, The Green Prince succeeds admirably. Director Nadav Schirman establishes a comfortable rhythm, cutting between the two men’s versions of events (which, since they were working for the same side, are pretty much in agreement), and alternating between having them appear on screen and using their words to supplement archival footage or re-enacted scenes. If you’re interested in Middle Eastern politics, this is certainly a film you will want to see.

If you don’t arrive already interested in the topic, however, The Green Prince can be a long slog. It’s an oddly bloodless film, for one thing, and neither man reveals much about himself over the course of the film’s 100 minutes. This is particularly bizarre in the case of Yousef, who, as part of his work for Shin Bet, betrayed his father, Palestinian leader Sheikh Hassan Yousef. Given that Yousef informs us early in his narration that cooperating with the Israelis is considered, in his community, to be the most shameful thing a person could do, you might think that such behavior would prompt some reflection on his part. It’s easier to understand ben Yitzhak’s motivations—he looks on Yousef as an asset he can manipulate to his own ends—but both frequently describe events as if they were reading a script about life on some other planet.

In so minimal a film, small things attract your attention. For instance, it’s impossible not to notice that, in their talking-head interviews, ben Yitzhak appears much larger on screen than does Yousef. Is that meaningful—for instance, is it an indirect way of showing who holds the real power in the relationship?—or does it merely display a lack of planning by the director? I’d be impressed if the former were true, but as this is not otherwise a particularly subtle film, I’m inclined to believe the latter.

The Green Prince uses a lot of reenactments alongside the interviews and archival footage. Reenactment is not my favorite documentary technique, although it certainly saves the filmmakers a lot of trouble: Why search for existing footage, or think of clever ways to bring archival material alive, when you can just use actors? The problem is that reenactments can easily fool the audience into thinking they are seeing something that really happened, rather than watching actors do something the filmmaker told them to do for the purpose of making the film more convincing. Seeing can quickly become believing, and blurring the line between reality and fiction is a device best reserved for instances where the director wishes to imply that the truth may be uncertain or unknowable (which is definitely not the case with this film; Schirman displays absolutely no doubt about either the story he wants to tell or its basis in truth).

I do seem to be in the minority on this point, however. If you watch television documentaries (e.g., on The History Channel), you already know that reenactments are entirely common in documentary films, probably because (besides the convenience factor) audience members respond to them. The audience for feature films is far greater than the audience for documentaries, so it may make financial sense to make documentaries that seem more like feature films. The Green Prince has certainly registered with festival attendees, as demonstrated by winning several audience awards at prestigious festivals such as Sundance and the Moscow International Film Festival. | Sarah Boslaugh

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