Winner of Israel’s Oscar equivalent for Best Documentary, this year’s Sundance Film Festival Audience Award winner and eligible for a Best Documentary Academy Award, Israeli-born writer-director Nadav Schirman’s The Green Prince uses as its jumping-off point the New York Times best-selling memoir “Son of Hamas” to explore the unlikely but deeply felt relationship between author Mosab Hassan Yousef (pictured, top), the son of a high-ranking Hamas official and heir to the position, and Gonen Ben Itzhak, the Shin Bet handler who turned him into an informant for the Israelis.
In this broad-ranging interview, conducted over two phone calls, Schirman talks passionately about his subjects’ courage, borrowing Errol Morris’ Interrotron, being the son of a diplomat and his love for Westerns and the films of Darren Aronofsky.
"It was the first time we had an insider’s perspective on Hamas."
At a function in Sydney, two women were explaining how moved and excited they were by the film and your Q&A afterwards. One of them had a question she said wasn’t addressed, she wanted to know if Mosab Hassan Yousef is safe in New York, or does he have concerns about his security?
He’s now based on the West Coast, actually. We had met in New York and he’s travelling around the world now because of the film. When I met him the first time a couple of years ago, we decided to make the film. Whenever we were sitting in a public place, he was always sitting with his back to the wall and his eyes on the door. And we had to move every hour, I remember. And then a couple of years later, he’s much more relaxed about everything, and really I think it was because he made a conscious choice not to be afraid.
His book “Son of Hamas” was the first point of reference for this project. How did you first meet these two remarkable men, and was it difficult to gain their trust?
I’d read the book, and being an Israeli for me this was a real revelation, because it was the first time we had an insider’s perspective on Hamas. They were our neighbours, they won the elections in 2006, then they sort of took over the Palestinian Authority, and we knew nothing about them. They’re just like the Islamic State today, or ISIS as you call them in Australia. All we know is the headlines and the 90-second news snippets, but we don’t really know or understand the culture from within. And with Hamas it was the same thing until Mosab wrote his book. You know, he was groomed to be the next-in-line leader of Hamas, his father was one of the founders, one of the most influential Hamas leaders in the West Bank and he was this Hamas prince, so to say, writing about his collaboration with the Israelis, which was the enemy, obviously, and the whole culture from inside. So that was fascinating, and that was the first step, because the book is Mosab’s perspective only.
And then I was introduced by one of our associates to Gonen Ben Itzhak, the Israeli handler. And I remember very well sitting with him in a café in Tel Aviv and hearing Gonen’s story. And he was telling it for the first time, the Shin Bet handler, this is the secret of secrets. My body was literally covered with goosebumps as he was telling me the story and as I understood the nature of their relationship, then and today. It was the first time, I think, that I really felt hope in a very tangible sense. I’ll give you this analogy, it felt like a raindrop on my skin. Because hope is a word that we use freely, but it is very rare to feel it. In an everyday life we feel contentment, frustration, happiness if we’ve got children, joy, sadness sometimes, but hope is not something that I, actually, felt very tangibly. Understanding the nature of their relationship, having turned from the best of enemies, so to say, to best of friends, I sort of felt that many things were possible. And that sort of paved the ground for the making of the project.
There’s a fascinating backstory to the film’s style and setting. How did you come to acquire Errol Morris’ Interrotron? I know you used it in a previous film, but how does one go about saying “can I use your Interrotron?”
Well, you know, I think you just do it. It’s not really an invention, it’s basically a teleprompter connected to another camera. So, I don’t know that there is a patent on it, I’ve seen it used in different ways. In this case, it was essential because the Interrotron here acted as a sort of lie detector. We were interviewing masters of deceit, professional spies, professional liars if you want, manipulators. So our role as filmmakers was to make a mise en scene that would throw them off their game. And the Interrotron acts as a lie detector because I think in the communication between people, especially between people on screen and an audience, I would say words are about thirty per cent of the communication, the rest is the subtext that comes from body language and energy. So by using the Interrotron and having our masters of deceit look straight into the eyes of the audience, the audience can pick up on the slightest body movement and body language. It acts as a lie detector, or a truth detector if you want. It not only creates a first-person contact, which Errol had intended, but it gives the audience other ways to judge their performance, or testimony. So it became interesting, very very interesting.
"Whenever we were sitting in a public place, he was always sitting with his back to the wall and his eyes on the door."
The set looks like a real interrogation room, only a lot more threatening. How did you find that set?
We built it. We shot in Bavaria Studios in Munich, where they shot Das Boot. My directive to the production designer was this should be reminiscent of an interrogation room without really being one. For me it was more a room of isolation, because both of these gentlemen made choices in life which led to them being completely isolated from their respective systems, Mosab from his family and people, and Gonen from the Shin Bet. And from Israeli society in a way, because he was a persona non grata. So there’s an element of isolation. The walls of the set were five metres high, so it’s very impressive. Now the concrete slabs – concrete, you call it in English? – they also make up the wall of separation between Israelis and Palestinians, there’s a wall now along the West Bank, which is made of these concrete slabs. So I also wanted to have that element, because for me this is not a story of separation, it is a story of coming together. So the set plays different roles in that sense, some of them more obvious than others.
This is the third feature-length documentary that you’ve made, following The Champagne Spy  and In The Dark Room , both of which are well worth seeking out. All of your films have something to do with family relationships. The Green Prince did not start out to be about the relationship between these two men, you had a much broader idea of the movie until you got into the editing room.
Right. It’s interesting you put it that way, because normally people say that all three of my films have to do with espionage and terrorism, where actually, as you pointed out, they’re about relationships.
Familial relationships in extraordinary circumstances.
Exactly, relationships which are being put under a great deal of pressure because of the secret and dangerous world in which they evolve. With The Green Prince, originally we had interviewed a lot more peripheral characters, like the head of the Shin Bet at the time, other agents, other people linked to Hamas, people who would shed light on the context of the story. In the process of editing, as it happens, we realised the story was the story of a relationship, and the context was less important, was actually hindering, the unfolding drama of this relationship.
This came about, and I think I told you this the other day, I was watching Requiem for a Dream, from a filmmaker I really like – Darren Aronofsky. In the making-of on the DVD, he was talking about the process of writing the screenplay, draft after draft after draft, and something didn’t tick right for him. Until he realised he’s trying to tell the story of addiction and he should rewrite the whole screenplay under the prism of addiction, rather than the point of view of this or that character. That led to the screenplay which was shot.
Having that in mind, as we were editing and really getting into the context of the story of The Green Prince, we all of a sudden made the decision that OK, let’s look at it through the prism of the relationship. Whatever did not have to do directly with the story of the relationship was left out. And then we were left with just these two characters. That became a real challenge. John Battsek and Simon Chinn, our producers who have done movies such as Searching For Sugar Man, Man on Wire, Project Nim and so on, they’re British so they have this very understated attitude towards it, which was “Oh, you’re going to do a two-hander, are you?”. That became the challenge, how to tell the story in the most gripping way, we wanted to have thriller elements to it, with just two characters.
You’re the son of a diplomat, is that correct?
Right, right right right. I grew up in my early years in Jerusalem, then Paris, then Montreal, then I went to school in the States a little bit and then I went to Army and I currently reside in Germany, actually.
That background probably prepares you to be a filmmaker because you have to be thinking on your feet all the time and be conversant in different languages and different cultures. Do you feel that travel at a formative age has informed your filmmaking in a tangible way?
You know, you were asking me this other day, which really got me thinking. What it really gave me was an outsider’s perspective on things. When one grows up in one place, one has deep roots, which makes you very strong. But it also sort of limits the perspective, because you see everything from the inside out. Growing up, moving from place to place, I was always looking at things from the outside in. And it’s just a different matter of perspective. That’s actually the way I came to do films, I remember when I was a kid in Paris, they were showing Westerns on television every Tuesday night and I loved them. But it was late, and my parents wouldn’t allow me watch them. So I would sneak out and sort of watch them from the crack of the door in the hallway. So it was always looking from the outside in, and I would edit things in my mind, because it was the crack of the door, so I had to move to see the different characters onscreen. So yeah, I guess it just gave me a different perspective on things.
You are just this evening finishing a sold-out series of six screenings you’ve done in Sydney and Melbourne for the Jewish International Film Festival, and then Madman is opening your film in limited national release 04 December. How have you found Australian audiences? Any dissent, any interesting viewpoints you hadn’t heard anywhere else on the festival circuit?
This is my first time in Australia and I’m really surprised, because I find Australians to be first of all very candid and open. There’s a lot less bullshit than in other countries and I like that. At the Q&As, the questions are very direct, very keen, very candid. I’m very pleased to see that the response is so tremendous here, people seem very touched by the film.
Maybe you could find a story here some day. It certainly worked for Wim Wenders a few decades ago [with Until the End of the World, 1991].
You know my love for Westerns, and I think this country screams “Western!” I saw one that Nick Cave wrote that I really like [The Proposition*].
Have you seen The Rover yet?
Yes, yes, and I like it a lot. That has a lot of Western elements to it as well.
The Green Prince is on the initial long list of documentaries eligible for the Academy Award, and your American distributor from the very beginning has promised an aggressive push in that regard. Are you prepared for the rigors of an Oscar campaign?
I wouldn’t know what this implies, you know, and I think these things are best left to providence, to see what comes. Days will tell what happens. We’ll see. I couldn’t be happier.
Watch 'The Green Prince' now at SBS On Demand
What's it about?
The real story of young Palestinian Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of a founding leader of Hamas. At 17, he is arrested by the Israel security services during an arm smuggling operation. Once in jail, he is shocked by the different interrogation technics of Shin Bet compared to the Hamas' more violent approach, and he decides to become a spy for Israel.