Mind rape and the tunnels beneath the borders of the mind
At the end of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Hundred Blows (les Quatre Cents Coups), there is an amazing, extended tracking shot that begins with the boy protagonist Antoine Doinel’s escape from a youth reformatory, during which the camera follows him as he runs for several minutes. The scene concludes with Antoine reaching the sea and then turning back to the camera, and in the direction of his pursuers and the viewers, for a sudden freeze-frame. When I first saw this movie as an adolescent, the freeze-frame ending was so fraught with resonance for me that I immediately began sobbing as though my heart had been broken.
The documentary The Green Prince, as yet unreleased in the Czech Republic, didn’t produce quite the same profound effect as the Truffaut classic, partly because I’m an old jaded humanist now, but I could feel the same tortured truth tunneling through to me as director Nadav Schirman’s surprisingly eloquent documentary reached its conclusion. For The Green Prince is at heart a morality tale about the crushing power of shame and betrayal, but also of the miraculous, redemptive capacity of trust. Or so, for a moment, it seemed.
Directed by Nadav Schirman
With Mosab Hassan Yousef and Gonen Ben Yitzhak
Because then it struck me that by the time Mosab Hassan Yousef completes the circuit through the unconscious maze of deceit and disloyalty, switching his allegiance from his Hamas-founding father to asserting that he “would die for” his former Shin Bet handler Gonen Ben Yitzhak, he has merely reached that ocean and that moment of freeze-frame inescapabilty. Although Gonen intervenes on Yousef’s behalf, after Shin Bet won’t, he is left beholden to his ex-handler and interrogator, in a bizarre psychological transference that Freud would have been proud to study.
The film is based on Yousef’s memoir, The Son of Hamas.Yousef grew up in the household of a founding member of the organization. “Hamas was not just a movement to us,” Yousef says. “It was the family business. It was our identity. It was everything.” Ostensibly, the memoir recounts how and why he decided to betray Hamas, which his father helped lead, in order to spy for Israel. I haven’t read the book, but in the film the precipitating moment of changed allegiances comes after he has gone to prison for the first time.
What had happened was that Yousef’s father had been arrested at home by Israeli forces and not returned for a year and a half. When he returns home upon his release, he is arrested again after just six hours. This enrages the young Mosab, who virtually worshipped his Dad, and he vows revenge. He is arrested on gun charges and sent to prison. And it is in prison that he recognizes the utter depravity and brutality that drive the soul of Hamas leadership. Suspected Israeli collaborators are tortured, often to death, by Hamas thugs, trying to extract information about networked fellow collaborators. It turns out there is no such network and that Hamas is often torturing for nothing.
Earlier in the film, Yousef alerts the viewer that collaboration with Israel is regarded by Palestinians as a crime worse than raping one’s own mother. It is hard to imagine a more confronting description of hatred than that. This understanding of the level and degree of betrayal involved in collaborating has profound resonances for Yousef himself. For, as he relates in the film, when he was five years old a friend of his father’s chased him down and raped him during an olive grove expedition. This caused a deep rupture in his psyche. “I was ashamed,” he said. “In my society, the more painful thing than being raped is to have the reputation for being raped.”
Consequently, he is forced to suppress his trauma. But no doubt the prison torture of Hamas on Hamas, Palestinian on Palestinian, brought that repressed energy to the fore. Torture is another form of rape, not so much of the body as of the mind. For him, Hamas becomes “cowards in the name of courage.”
A central theme of the film concerns the multiple layers of shame Yousef must cope with to survive. Shame is extraordinarily powerful in directing the energies of the psyche and to the integrity of self-identity. A person who feels deep shame is caught between the pincers of communal rejection, a sense of being kicked out of the human race, which is almost unbearable, as well as a nauseating and incapacitating loathing of one’s own being. As a moral motivating factor, surely shame is far more ‘useful’ than feeling ‘guilty.’
No doubt this is why Yousef breaks down toward the end of the film when he discovers that Shin Bet will not help him after he quits working for them and, after producing a tell-all book, is threatened by the United States with deportation to Jordan, a sure death sentence. He has spent years betraying his father, family, Hamas and fellow Palestinians, tunneling in among them with his lies, in order, he hopes, to save his people greater grief at that hands of Hamas’ brutal authoritarianism and to provide an opportunity for a peace settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians to germinate. When they reject him, he is back to Shame One.
If the film has a drawback, it is the lack of balance attached to the picture of Hamas’ thuggery. There are indeed theories out there about the cause of the degree of savagery often associated with Hamas militants, and with Islamic jihadists in general, such as the one Judith Butler proffers, which suggests that beheadings are hysterical reactions of grief and rage to being culturally raped by Israelis. But I’m not sure it accounts for the extreme of like-minded violence that occurs in other parts of the Arab world that are not under such pressure, such as in Saudi Arabia, where they seemingly behead at the drop of a hat, so to speak.
Actually, Hamas and the whole Palestinian questions seem to have a parallel in the once-endless evils of Northern Ireland. One might compare the parading Protestant Orangemen of Belfast to the unrepentant radical Zionist settlers of the West Bank. Like the IRA once was, Hamas is split along political and military wings. Like the militant wing of the IRA and horrific blunder in Omagh, Hamas has portioned out episodes of grievous and outrageous violence against their own civilian population. And, of course, religion in each case is key. But the politics are entirely different.
The Green Prince is another one of those award-deserving productions that many people should see but will probably have limited distribution. However, like the recent 5 Broken Cameras (also a somewhat anti-Hamas, pro-Palestinian film) and the excellent Shin Bet documentary, The Gatekeepers, in which former heads of the agency explicitly condemn Israeli policy toward Palestinians and lay the blame on controlling radical Zionists, The Green Prince is well worth going out of the way to see and absorb. These are films whose visceral and narrative power go beyond the exhausting and unending chain of rants, bring clarity and precious elements of understanding to an otherwise incomprehensible saga of destruction. They are a freeze-frame of the soul in crisis.