Dolphin Boy/Yonatan Nir

Winning awards from Jerusalem to Berlin, Dolphin Boy documents the extraordinary relationship between a boy beaten into a catatonic state and the animals and people who bring him back to life.  Director Talk interviews codirector Yonatan Nir about dolphin therapy, Cinema for Peace, and resolution in the Middle East. •Availability:  NYC theatrical premiere April 27, Quad Cinema.  Click here for the trailer. •Written and directed by Yonatan Nir and Dani Menken.  Produced by Dani Menkin, Yonatan Nir, and Judith Manassen Ramon


DT:  You were an underwater photographer before you were injured during the second Lebanon war. When you returned to Dolphin Reef, the dolphins communicated with you in a way they never had before.  Can you describe that experience?

YN:  I couldn’t find the energy to go back to work.  One morning I entered the water without a camera, and six dolphins just came to me and swam with me for forty-five minutes.  They made me smile for the first time, and they made me cry in the diving mask, and I felt that there is hope.  Life goes on.  It was a very, very powerful experience for me that made me want to tell the story about the inexplicable connection between man and dolphins and how this connection can help people in trouble. I’ve been underwater with whales and dolphins and manta rays, and I have three thousand five hundred hours underwater, but there were only a few moments when I had this really strong feeling, when this huge animal comes directly to you.  It looks into your camera and it looks into your heart and it looks into your soul, and it always left me—even before my injury—amazed.  It’s a very, very strong, emotional feeling.


DT:  Dolphin Reef sounds like a different kind of facility from other dolphin therapy facilities around the world.

YN:  It’s been operating for a bit more than twenty years, and as far as I know, it’s the only place in the world that operates in this way.  First of all, it’s not in an aquarium.  The dolphins live in the open sea. For many years they could swim out and swim in; everything was open.  In the last couple of years they closed the nets because of the authorities, but I can tell you the dolphins are finding their way out. The other important element is that the dolphins never get fed for doing tricks or performing.  If they jump or if they come to a dolphin trainer it’s not because of the fish they’re going to get, it’s because they want to make this connection with the trainer who knows them, who is their friend. The trainers are with them sometimes three, four hours a day in the water, so the dolphins know them and want their attention.  That’s why they play.  So the guys who work there feed them five times a day, but the feeding doesn’t have anything to do with the dolphins’ performance.  The dolphins get some fish—not a lot, but just enough to keep them in balance, because there aren’t enough fish for eight dolphins in the bay where they live.  It has nothing to do with their performance—if you’re a good boy you’re going to get a fish and if you’re a bad boy you’re not.  It doesn’t work like that.

DT:  It’s for feeding, not positive reinforcement.

YN:  No positive reinforcement.  There’s no connection between feeding and the other things that happen in the Dolphin Reef.  Another important thing is the fact that they’re in a huge area and they’re never forced to come to people. If they chose to come to Morad, it’s because they wanted to be close to the trainer who was with him in the water or because they liked Morad and wanted to be in contact with him.  For example, except for that one time when they just came to me, I never had a connection with dolphins like Morad did.  He really had a special, special connection.

DT:  Do you think that that was because of his injury or just because of who he is?

YN:  A mix of both.  Morad has this love in him.  He has a huge heart, and he’s very open, and he’s loving.  When he trusts you, he just hugs you.  He’s so positive and so lovely.  He has a great touch.  Today he’s studying hydrotherapy and physiotherapy, and he’s really good with his hands.  And he really wanted the connection with the dolphins, because at the beginning he had no other connections. They could feel he wanted it, so I think that’s another reason they came.  And we know—we know for sure, and I know from my own experience—that dolphins are attracted, for some reason, to people in trouble, people who are traumatized.  I can’t explain it, but I heard it not only from myself, I heard it from many people who felt that when they were down, a dolphin approached them.  I don’t have any proof of that, but it’s my experience, it’s Morad’s experience, and it’s many other people’s experience.


DT:  Tell me about Morad’s father.  He was incredible.

YN:   In real life he’s even more incredible, because he really had to deal with a huge conflict.  First of all, he comes from a society where if something happened to your kid, you go and take revenge.  And he stopped this revenge.  He said, revenge will not help me and will not help my kid.  I will go to jail and he will be in a mental institution, and it will not help me, and it will not help him.  So we will have to take it easy now, we will only have to take care of the kid.  But of course he was still angry inside.  When he moved to Eilat with Morad, he gave up everything he had.  He sold his horses and his farm, he sold the most important things in order to be able to spend as much time with his son as it takes.  And always with this positiveness and always with this hope.  And this hope also attracted other people, like myself, like the dolphin trainers.  The Dolphin Reef never charged him, or charged him a really small amount, because they said, Listen, there’s a guy here who needs help.  He will do everything for his son.  He’s willing to pay a million bucks if he needs to.  He will wash dishes here for five years to support his son.  We can’t stand aside; it’s not an ordinary case, it’s something special.  And of course Dr. Ilan Kutz, one of the biggest post-trauma experts in Israel, probably in the world, never took a dime from Morad or from his father.  He said, I cannot; I see how much this father wants to help his son.   It’s humanity more than anything else, just to be a human being, to see somebody needing help and to help him.  And we on the film crew had to deal with a lot of issues.  Today we sit here and the film is great, and the story of Morad is completed, but it was not like that all the time.  It was ups and downs, and we had times when Morad didn’t want to be filmed, when he was depressed, when we didn’t see any hope.  Then we always took the phone and gave a phone call to Assad, the father, and asked him, What should we do?  He’s such a smart guy, and he’s so connected to nature and to his son, and to basic instincts, and he was directing us.  Always, when I didn’t know what to do, I would give a call to Assad, and say, Hey, man, we have a problem with Morad.  He doesn’t want to be filmed, and he would tell me, OK, so go to Eilat without the camera and spend some time with him without the camera.  Go dive with him.  So we would come, but with a small camera, and I would go and dive with him, and after the dive we would talk in the water, and then he would open up to us.  And Assad—it always seemed to me that he had a plan, that he wanted his son back in the village.  He’s an Arab man, he wants his son back in the village to prove that the family is strong, all these honor issues, and then the son comes back to life in Eilat and wants to live with a Jewish girl.  OK, now the father is facing a double conflict.  He wants his son back in the village, but his son isn’t ready to go back to the village, but not only that, he wants to stay there with a Jewish girl and basically give up on his former identity.  And then the father has to deal with it.  And as filmmakers we knew that we had here really strong, powerful material.  We tried to ask Assad what he felt about the girl, and I never heard him saying one single bad word about her.  He was so positive, and he never pushed Morad.  And even in the last scene in the film, you can see how he sits there next to him in front of the sunrise and tells him, You have to know your family is there; whenever you’re ready, you come.  And only then Morad goes.  It was also important for us as filmmakers to make a film that will be good not only as a film but also good for the treatment of Morad, that will be good not only dramatically but also therapeutically.  So when he goes back to the village, it’s not because his father pushed him, it’s because he decides to go there.  So I consider myself very, very lucky to come across such a story.


DT:  I read that there are differences between the roles that male and female dolphins play in the social structure of the community.  Did that come into play in Morad’s therapy?

YN:  I don’t think so, but I have a nice anecdote.  We have a scene in the film—it’s like the first or second day of Morad at Dolphin Reef—where the dolphins come and push Morad up to the surface.  And this is really interesting, because we know that dolphins, not like us, they have to choose when they want to breathe.  Not like us, where I can just (gulps).  I cannot hold my breath and commit suicide.  But a dolphin can.  So in the wild, when a dolphin feels bad physically or mentally—and it usually goes together—he can, if he decides, just commit suicide by drowning.  The other dolphins know this characteristic, and they know this ability, so if they see a dolphin that doesn’t feel well, they’ll always put another dolphin next to him so once every couple of minutes he can push him to the surface and take a breath of air.  We had a situation in the Dolphin Reef where we had a dolphin who was so sick that he couldn’t stay on the surface, and his brother swam next to him and kept him three days above the surface.  So when we saw it happening with Morad, it symbolized exactly what I felt when I was injured and needed help.  They sensed it and they came to me. I don’t know how to explain it.


DT:  You shot for four years. At the beginning you couldn’t have known it was going to take that long.  As filmmakers, how did you work that out?

YN:  First of all, I’m very, very lucky to work with two amazing partners.  Dani Menkin and I produced,  directed, and wrote the film together, and the other partner is our producer, Judith Manassen-Ramon. When one of us was a bit down, the other one would push him up, and it worked really, really well.  We were very lucky to tell the story of such characters, like Dr. Ilan Kutz, like the guys from the Dolphin Reef—Omer and Sophie and Yaron—and like Morad himself and his father, of course.  Also, we didn’t shoot it from the very first moment.  When Morad arrived, other guys from Dolphin Reef shot some of the footage, so it’s not only mine.  And of course Dr. Kutz shot Morad in the hospital in the beginning.  But I think when you work on such a project –I’ve done four documentaries until today—each one of them has a challenge.  The challenge in this documentary is that it took a long time.  With another documentary it can be budget, or it can be materials, or footage, or it can be a character who is not cooperating.  Every film has its own issues, so I think that the only thing is to be an optimist and to have good partners and to believe that the story you are telling is important for the world to hear.  I know it sounds maybe a bit…but we knew we were doing something right here, that this story must be told. That gives you a little power to go through the hardships.


DT:  Your film Beyond the Boundaries is somewhat similar to Dolphin Boy in the sense that you show someone using  a particularly interesting therapy to overcome a disablement.

YN:  I did two films similar to Dolphin Boy.  One is Beyond the Boundaries, which will be shown in the LA Jewish Film Festival in two weeks, and the other is Cutting the Pain.  All of them deal with people who experienced something tough in their lives.  In the film, and through the film, they’re going through a process of acceptance, understanding maybe, and maybe also a kind of rehabilitation.  In Beyond the Boundaries it’s more physical—these four amazing guys, all disabled, going to Aspen, Colorado, to learn how to ski.  One of them is a full amputee, he has no legs; another is post-traumatic; the third  experiences really bad pain in his body all the time due to injuries in the second Lebanon War; and the fourth one cannot move his body below his chest.   It was great to be with these kinds of guys and to experience them learning how to ski and getting empowered by their ability to do something that other people cannot.  Through that they tell the story of their injuries and the way they find hope and reason to live.  I guess it’s easy for me to relate to these kinds of stories because I experienced something similar—not as strong, not as tough—but I experienced some things, so I can relate to it and make them trust me.  I will not use their story just to make a film.  Cutting the Pain is also a very strong story about a guy that decides to go through leg amputation in order to release himself from a pain syndrome that he has in his leg.  After his leg has been amputated, only then the true story reveals something that happened in the military services that he feels guilty for.  And so it’s a very strong film that also took me three years to complete.  So I was dealing with these kinds of stories for two or three years after my injury, and now I am starting to do other stuff as well.


DT: Was there something about the second Lebanon War that was particularly traumatic?

YN:   It’s not about this specific war or this specific place.  I think that generally in Israel, unfortunately, we’re experts on trauma.  That’s why Dr. Ilan Kutz was able to come up with this incredible idea to send Morad to the Dolphin Reef instead of putting him in a mental institution.  When you live in Israel, you are surrounded by this all the time.  Tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day, and the week after is Independence Day.  They go together.  In Dolphin Reef we told a story about trauma and about rehabilitation with a situation that is not about military service and is actually about an Arab kid.  I showed this film dozens of times here in Israel in front of Arabs and Jews and religious people, from the occupied territories and from Tel Aviv and from the north and from the south.  I even showed it in jails, to people who were convicted of rape and violence and stuff like that, but there’s something here in the story that’s universal.  It’s not about him being Arab or Jew or this war or that war.  On the one hand, it’s about the fact that the human violence that is all around us has a terrible effect on the human soul.  On the other hand, if you give it enough patience, if you bring enough hope and faith and love, you can fix almost everything.  And I think this is the message.  When I showed this film in Toronto somebody told me that we made a film about coexistence without saying a word about politics.  And I couldn’t agree more.  We’re just human beings. I get letters from Israeli Jews who write, After watching your film, it was the first time I felt that peace is an option.   I always translate these letters and send them to Assad and Morad, because when you look at their story, it’s a human story.  For me it was an incredible opportunity to meet the other side, to meet the Arab Israelis, to see that in this Muslim culture there are people who love life more than they love revenge.  Many of them are sick of all this revenge that’s going on.  That’s the message—it’s something more universal, it’s not related to this war, or that war, it’s something universal.  Morad could have been a Jewish boy from Brooklyn who was sexually attacked.  He could have been a girl that had a car accident, or a Sudani refugee who crossed the border into Israel.


DT:  Tell me about Cinema for Peace.

YN:  They invited us to Berlin for their annual awards ceremony because we were nominated for what they call the Green Oscar.  It’s the best film about green issues.  We didn’t win, but it was a great opportunity for me to wear a suit and a tie for the first time in my life.  It was an interesting experience to arrive next to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and walk on the red carpet to find out that nobody takes pictures of you.  But that was the experience.  It was a very big honor for us to be there.


DT:  What are you working on now?

YN:  We just completed an historical documentary about a man named Wilfred Israel.  He owned a huge supermarket in Berlin in the twenties and thirties, and he saved the lives of at least twenty thousand people.  His story is unknown.

DT:  He was Jewish?

YN:  Yes.  His airplane was shot down on his way back from Portugal to England in 1943.  He went to Portugal to try to save more kids; he saved mainly children.  He was the initiator of the Kindertransport operation, the operation that saved ten thousand kids without their parents between Kristallnacht and the beginning of the war.  And his role in the Kindertransport and in other things was unknown except for an incredible biography that was written in the eighties.  But a biography is something that not many people read, especially if it’s a historical biography, and this guy had problems with PR.  Some guys I know from the kibbutz where I grew up, their father was a very good friend of Wilfred Israel.  They decided that they wanted to make history known, and they started to raise funds to make a short documentary about it.  Do you remember what I told you before about always having an issue in a film?  The issue here was that there were no pictures.  There were only five pictures of this man.  And from these five pictures I had to make a thirty-minute documentary.

DT:  What was it called?

YN:  It was called Wilfred Israel, the Savior from Berlin.  It will show in London next month.  While researching this film I found out many other incredible things this man did in his life, and I decided to make a long version of this film in order to bring it to European TV, not only in Israel.  Now we’re collecting funds, and I’m pretty sure we’re going to do it.  It’s very rare that you find such a story that is untouched.  He was half British, born in England, so it allowed him to stay in Germany until 1943.  All the top Nazis had accounts in his supermarket. It was huge—two thousand people worked there.  The Nazis’ accounts were never paid, but it gave him a lot of power.  And he initiated the Kinderstransport and saved seven hundred Jewish employees.  Later he moved to Britain to make sure they would accept refugees from Germany, so thanks to his work another eight thousand people were rescued.  Then he went to Portugal, risking his life in order to take out refugees from Portugal.  So I’m very fascinated about this project, and I hope we’ll be able to raise enough funding to support it.


DT:  I hope so.  Is there anything that you want to add?

YN:   Post-trauma is a multicultural and international issue.  I read somewhere that post-trauma behaves in a human soul just the same way it behaves in a society.  Our society in Israel, and many societies today in the world, are post-traumatic, which means very agitated, with a lot of fear, with a hard time sleeping at night.  Look at how people drive in Israel.  It’s terrible.  In my opinion it all comes from the same place, a place where you live in a culture where you don’t know what will happen tomorrow and death is all around you and aggressiveness is all around you and violence is all around you.  Here, in this film, the message is to show that even though Morad’s condition was so bad, if you have people to help him get through it, then you can cross everything.  The human beings in this film behave a bit like dolphins in the way that they don’t judge a person according to the language that they speak or according to his belief or the place that he came from.  They accept him as a human being.  Because when you jump into the water and a dolphin senses you, he will see heart, and internal organs, and skeleton, he will never be able to say whether you’re black or white, or poor or rich, or if you’re Arab or Jew, or which wars your ancestors fought against each other.  He will see a human being, so we saw him as a human being.  Morad is now studying in the north, close to my mom’s house.  She told me to tell him to come stay with her so he doesn’t have to drive one week every morning to get to his exams. And when I go back I sit with his father and with my family.  We became best friends.  So it’s possible.  Without politics, it’s possible.


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