Interview: Nadav Schirman
Mosab Yousef, the eldest son of a Hamas leader, spent over a decade as an undercover agent working for Shin Bet, Israel’s espionage and counterterrorism agency. At great personal risk, he helped head off numerous suicide bombings and provided critical information about Hamas operations and its organizational hierarchy. Director Nadav Schirman delves into this story in The Green Prince, crafting a spare documentary thriller about terrorism and espionage in the Middle East.
Although inspired by Mosab’s memoir, Son of Hamas, the film does not simply recount the life of the Palestinian scion accused of betraying his family and his people. Instead, Schirman’s third documentary feature hones in on the unlikely yet enduring relationship Mosab forged with his Shin Bet handler, Gonen Ben Itzhak, over their years working together. Centering the film on interviews with Mosab and Gonen, Schirman distills a tight emotional core bound up in the evolving dynamic between these two compelling figures. After initially facing off against each other, the pair eventually turned against their respective organizations, sacrificing their positions of privilege but preserving their humanity.
The Green Prince screens this Saturday in the Human Rights Watch Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and opens for a theatrical run on August 8. FILM COMMENT spoke by phone with Schirman in a conversation that virtually became a class in the art of interviewing (or handling spies…).
When did you realize that these two were articulate and charismatic enough for the entire film to revolve around their telling the story?
First I read Mosab’s book, Son of Hamas, and I was struck by how little we knew about Hamas. I’ve lived in Israel a very long time. I’m partly Israeli. And I realized Hamas were our neighbors and we know nothing about them. And Mosab’s book offered an insider’s perspective of Hamas which grabbed me. Then I was introduced to Gonen, his handler. And when I understood the nature of their relationship, the way it was and the way it is today, the evolution of their relationship, I was struck. Also, Mosab’s identity crisis was fascinating. This film comes after two films where I dealt with identity crisis at this level [The Champagne Spy, 07, and In the Dark Room, 13].
So that was the first step that led to this. What happened afterwards was that I spent a lot of time with both gentlemen trying to establish a relationship of trust, or to see if we could get to a relationship of trust. It was obvious to me that I wanted them to take me to the darkest corners of their emotional connection to their story.</p>
How did you gain that trust with them?
I was very candid about my intentions. I knew that they would undergo a journey and that it would be unlike any other interview situation that they had been in. For Gonen, it was very hard to reveal himself, as a Shin Bet agent who’s used to operating in the shadows. For Mosab, he had told his story many times in his book and in speaking engagements, but I wanted to tell it in a very different way, in a more emotional way. And they were. And this was just the beginning, because then my role was to create a setting which would throw them off their guard. Because these two gentlemen are used to interrogations, to deceit. Their tradecraft is lying and deceit, layers and layers of those. So they’re not normal interview partners.
What did you do to prepare for the interviews to prevent them from getting the better of you?
That was the most interesting part of the filmmaking. First of all, we built a set that was five meters tall. It was very, very tall. I wanted to build a set that would be reminiscent of an interrogation room but is a bit more abstract than that. It’s more like the room of their isolation. Because these two gentlemen made choices which ultimately led to their isolation—from their families, from their people. So we created this massive set, which you see only partly in the film, but it’s there. We sat each one of them in this set surrounded by five-meter concrete walls. It’s massive, it makes you feel very small. It’s very intimidating. And then we use this device which was invented by Errol Morris called the Interrotron.
Yes, he uses it in films like Standard Operating Procedure.
We used the Interrotron to create this first-person contact and to be able to look them in the eye, because you want to see the body language. You don’t only want to hear the words that are spoken, you want to be able to perceive the truth or the untruth which emanates from the body language—from the movement of the eye, from the tilting of the head. So it was imperative to use this device.
And then the way that I conducted the interrogation, especially with Mosab, at times it got to be very heated. There were things that he wouldn’t want to go into. And we had agreed at the beginning that he would allow me to push him. I made that bond with him, saying, listen, if you will allow it, I will push, and I will probe, and I will lead you into the darkest corners of this story. And he was brave enough to allow this.
At one point, we connected him to a lie detector, Gonen as well—as they were in their interrogation, back in the Shin Bet. With Mosab, we were talking about the way he was interrogated by the Israelis. And I had a small stool and handcuffs, like they used on him, and a hood. He even put the hood and the handcuffs on himself. He sort of relived that moment by doing this. These were not easy times to reinvest in.
Where did you find that you had to push hardest with Mosab to get responses? Where was he most hesitant to respond?
The trickiest part—and this is not only for me as a film director, but also for Shin Bet handlers—is the whole issue of motivation. What motivates somebody to betray their family and to work for the enemy? And motivation, I’ve learned, is something that changes over time. The issue of motivation was the most difficult one. Mosab in his own process also had to come to terms with what he was doing. I was like, how can you sleep at night, under the same roof as your parents, all throughout this period? How could you sleep there at night, knowing you were betraying them and working with their own worst enemy? And I remember him saying, well, I slept very well, because I used my pay to provide for the family, I was keeping my father alive by working with his enemy, I was preventing him from going to prison, or later, when I got him arrested, it saved his life. I was helping my mother. So essentially, I was helping my family. And trying to understand how he really lived that, in his consciousness back then, was he torn at all? These were difficult times. That and the whole story of the rape were very dark.
And what was interesting with the Interrotron was I would bring Gonen in and have Gonen ask Mosab certain questions, or then I would take Mosab and I would have Mosab question Gonen via the Interrotron.
Was this your first time using the Interrotron?
I used it on my previous film, In the Dark Room . It was the story of the wife and daughter of Carlos the Jackal. I knew that Magdalena Kopp, the wife of Carlos the Jackal, had baggage. She was hiding a lot of things. And she was used to being interrogated by the French police when she was arrested. This is very effective with people who are used to interviews or interrogations, because there’s a lot you can do with this eye contact. Body language, the energy which it transports, communicates a lot. So it was essential to be able to communicate this to the audience as well.
But you know what was most interesting? Gonen at some point came to me and said, listen, Nadav, I’m used to handling people. But here, I feel totally handled by you. And then I realized that what we do as film directors—building the set, using the Interrotron, applying different interview techniques, bringing one to interview the other and so forth—it’s basically handling. It’s getting the person to do something which they may not naturally do. In the process, I remember talking to one of the heads of the Shin Bet, who was talking about interrogation methods that they use. And I was struck by how similar it is to directing. These guys, they would create a mise en scène for two weeks just to get to a confession sometimes.
Gonen talks in the film about preparing for his interrogation sessions with Mosab and other people he tried to turn into agents. What kind of background research did you do on Gonen and Mosab?
One thing which was very tricky was that I did not want to talk to Mosab or Gonen about this story. Because I wanted it to be fresh while we were shooting. So while I was building the relationship with them, I had to talk about a great many things, except about the story. So this was very tricky. And then I had to research around them. Meeting with other operatives, people from the Shin Bet, and doing a lot of research, so that I would have enough ammunition to bounce things back.
One of the preparations was [figuring out] the way that you want to tell the story. On the one hand, there is the narrative approach to the interview—you want to make sure you get the right narrative points, your ducks in a row—and then the second part is the emotional connection to the story. And there I would say the biggest preparation is creating that bond with both these gentlemen. The more interesting part came from their willingness to question themselves and their own narrative.
The film is built just around the interviews with Mosab and Gonen. You didn’t include any interviews with other people. Both of them are interviewed, and they’re interviewed separately from each other, never together. How did you settle on this approach?
This came about through the editing process. What’s very interesting about making this kind of documentary is that you’re ultimately writing the film in the editing room. We had interviewed a lot more people that gave context and different shades and flavor to the story. But in the process of editing, we realized that ultimately this was the story of a relationship. It was a story of a relationship between two people who start off as best of enemies and end up being best of friends.
I remember having seen Darren Aronofsky talking about the way he wrote the screenplay for Requiem for a Dream, and all of a sudden after the second, third or fifth draft, he was struck by the fact that it wouldn’t be the story of the characters, it would be the story of addiction itself. And he rewrote the whole script under this prism, and let the narrative arc be the arc of addiction. And the characters are serving the arc. Having that in mind, I said, OK, let’s try to tell the story of this relationship. So we shed whatever was extraneous to this central narrative of this relationship.
It’s interesting, the similarities between the two men despite their differences. They both turn against either their families or their organizations: Mosab with Hamas and his father, and then Gonen bends the rules of Shin Bet and it gets him kicked out.
You know what’s amazing? This is a real-life story and the drama of it is classic. It’s classic Shakespeare, it’s classic Aristotle, it’s classic drama. And if you analyze the dramatic beats of the story, you will be struck by just how perfectly dramatic they are. And I realize it often, doing documentaries, that the real-life stories are just much more dramatic than fiction. Fiction tends to be generic, a lot of times fiction tries to imitate life. And the young generation of filmmakers are trying to imitate other movies that they saw, which imitate life. Then come these real-life stories which are almost perfect drama. Like snowflakes that have this almost perfect shape.
Were you tempted at all to make a fictional version of this story?
No, I was certain that I wanted to do a documentary. There is a fiction [feature] being made now. Jamie Patricof is going to produce it. He produced The Place Beyond the Pines, The Notebook, The Hills Have Eyes.
I remember what happened to me with The Champagne Spy. All the Hollywood studios and big producers wanted to get into the fiction adaptation of this. And I remember it feeling like homework. You put all your passion into telling the story one way, and then you’ve got to tell it in a different way. And what’s exciting about documentary filmmaking is that everything is possible. I mean, look at The Act of Killing, look at Bombay Beach, The Imposter, Searching for Sugarman. There is no mold, you know? Working in feature documentary, especially today, is very exciting, just because the genre is so open.
It seems that you’re drawn to the people in these shadow trades. Your three documentary films all deal with these people.
That’s one way of looking at it. The way I look at it is that all these three films are about family relationships, or relationships put under a great amount of pressure. The Champagne Spy is about a son who discovers that his father is a Mossad agent. This relationship between father and son takes you into the world of espionage, and reveals the personal and psychological toll of espionage. And In the Dark Room is the relationship between the daughter and the wife of the most wanted terrorist in the world, and how it is to grow up the daughter of the most wanted terrorist in the world, or the wife of this man. So this background setting of espionage and terrorism is just the pressure cooker in which you put these relationships.
Your first two films are directly about the parent-child relationship. The Green Prince also has Mosab’s relationship with his father Hassan, but there’s also this relationship that emerges between Mosab and Gonen. And it becomes almost filial, brotherly, paternal.
This is very interesting. Gonen was a star in the Shin Bet. He had more sources in his area than anybody else. And his way was very different than the normal Shin Bet agent, who’s much more macho, using a strong hand. Gonen is very soft. I remember him telling me, you know, the difference between me and the other handlers is that after I meet a source, I don’t wash my hands like the other handlers. And the source feels it. They know it. And Gonen’s very human approach is what led him to be a star in the system. I asked, what do you think motivate these people? Is it money? Favors? And he said the biggest successes were with orphans. And then we started talking about the role of the father in Palestinian society, and how important the father is, and how the whole family structure evolves around the father, and what happens when the father is not there, when the father is dead, or imprisoned, then the son becomes weaker and more exposed to the pressures of that society. And then comes the Shin Bet handler. He takes on the role of the father, of the protector.
But what you said about them being brothers is also very true, because they became like brothers. Today, Mosab is staying at Gonen’s place in Israel, since the film opened and he’s there now. So there is that relationship. And also between Jews and Arabs. There is that sort of brothers, cousins, love-hate, Cain-Abel type relationship. And you see it also in the film, the more distant and alienated Mosab becomes from his family and from his father, the closer he comes to Gonen.
Looking at the framing of the film, you open with a foreword about the peace deal between Rabin and Arafat, and then talk about Rabin’s assassination. And then you end the film with this friendship that emerges between an Israeli and a Palestinian. I think there’s a parallel there, and I’m wondering what your intention was, in setting it up that way.
That’s crazy, man! That’s crazy! I never thought of this. This is not intended, but it’s totally true what you are saying. It’s about people, ultimately. Rabin and Arafat were the two people who had the courage to step against their own systems and try to make it work. It didn’t work, you know? And then Rabin was killed. But it was led by these people. And then at the end of the film what you have is, you have these two people, these two individuals, these two humans, who went against the grain of their own systems and became best of friends. Mosab set out to kill Gonen. Gonen set out to manipulate the shit out of Mosab. But they took risks in the process. They lost everything, they lost their families, they lost their jobs, they lost a lot of things. But they gained this friendship.
But as you say, with Rabin and then with Gonen and Mosab, the people who take this different, outside approach, and are willing to challenge things, they seem to come to bad ends, they get kicked out of organizations or worse.
If you work in a corporation, you know the feeling very well. You may disagree with what the system wants. And you have a choice, you either go with the system and subdue your own moral compass, or you listen to your own moral compass and try to follow it, and you may find yourself ousted from the system. And whether this is good or bad, you write your own history. It’s the individual inside the system, and how you act as an individual inside the system.
How has the film been received, either from what you’ve personally seen or in the media response?
We just opened in Israel and I was very surprised. I’ve lived a long time in Israel. Israelis never get to their feet. They’re a very cynical people. But when the premieres were over, there was applause, and then Mosab and Gonen got on the stage, and they got standing ovations which wouldn’t stop.
The peace process collapsed the week that the film opened. Maybe the film gave people something to be optimistic about. And I remember, for Mosab it was very special, because maybe this also gave him a sense of closure.