Filmmakers
Filmmakers Nir, left, and Menkin. “I knew that there was a story here that had to be told,” says Nir. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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The documentary “Dolphin Boy” opens with breathtaking underwater shots. A young man is seen diving in the water, moving around easily. The color of the water is deep blue, thousands of air bubbles surround him in a kind of beautiful dance of the deep, and the silence is broken only by the sound of movement in the water and the release of the bubbles. A close-up of his face reveals an expression of calm, as two dolphins approach the man, swim alongside him, allow him to pet them and to lean on them.

The subtitle “Four years earlier” interrupts the pleasant serenity. “Photograph for the purpose of medical documentation, September 14,” announces a doctor, aiming the camera at a handsome, dark-skinned young man sitting on the opposite side of the room.

“Morad, do you know where you are?” asks the doctor. The young man doesn’t react. His eyes dart back and forth, his breathing is fast, and he mutters: “Mama, Mama, Mama.” The doctor calls him a few more times, but Morad seems to be disconnected.

“Summary of the first meeting,” says the voice of the doctor, a psychiatrist. “The patient, a boy from an Arab village in the center of the country, is described as an outstanding and popular student. About 10 days ago he was brought to the hospital by his father, brutally beaten, unable to speak and in an extreme state of posttraumatic dissociation. According to the report, he was cruelly beaten by the family of a girl in his class who had sent him an innocent text message, which was mistakenly interpreted as a sign of an improper relationship.”

The film “Dolphin Boy,” which was screened yesterday and will be shown a second time today in Jerusalem, as part of the Israeli documentary competition of the Jerusalem Film Festival, tells the story of the extraordinary rehabilitation of Morad, an Israeli Arab boy who suffered from serious injuries and stopped talking and interacting with his surroundings as a result of the murderous beating he received from a group of boys from his village, Kalansua, north of Jerusalem. Two months after the traumatic incident, when it became clear that the treatment was not improving his emotional state, the psychiatrist who was overseeing Morad’s case, Dr. Ilan Kutz, suggested a last resort before hospitalization in a psychiatric ward: to send him for therapy at the Dolphin Reef in Eilat.

Observing the progress of change in Morad’s situation during the course of the film is fascinating. Not only did his condition improve, he also built a new identity. The new Morad refuses to visit his parents’ home, refuses to meet with his mother and speaks Hebrew almost exclusively. He has become an Eilat beach boy who works at the Dolphin Reef and is developing a relationship with a young Jewish girl. He is a gifted diver, who can remain underwater for some three minutes and dive to a depth of 30 meters; his physiology enables him, while diving, to emit air bubbles from an opening between his nose and his eye that he’s had from birth, just like a dolphin. Only the nightmares and flashbacks that he continues to experience are capable of interfering with the serenity of his new life.

Yonatan Nir, who directed the film with Dani Menkin ‏(director of the documentary “39 Pounds of Love” and the feature “Je T’aime, I Love You Terminal”‏), was working as a photographer at the Dolphin Reef when Morad arrived, in 2006.

“I was wounded in the Second Lebanon War, and after a few weeks I went back to work at the reef,” said Nir last week, in a joint interview with Menkin. “When you’re in a bad emotional state, the encounter with the dolphins is a very powerful experience. On the day I returned I was still wounded, I entered the water and suddenly six dolphins arrived and stayed next to me for 40 minutes of diving. That’s a rare thing, and it’s a marvelous feeling.

I knew that there was a story here that had to be told.”

Nir saw Morad’s total dissociation from his surroundings when he arrived at the reef, and observed how he changed as a result of his relationship with the dolphins. He was writing for various newspapers at the time, and even began working on an article about Morad’s story. He stopped work on that, however, when the condition of the 17-year-old boy began to deteriorate.

Nir: “At the time I began to study film, and when a newspaper sent me to write an article about the hero of the film ‘39 Pounds of Love,’ I met Dani [Menkin] for the first time. I immediately noticed his dolphin pendants, and several pictures of dolphins hanging in his house, and I felt a connection with him. I said to him: ‘Listen, there’s an amazing story at the Dolphin Reef that I’ve started to document.’ I also told him my personal story, and he immediately said, ‘Yallah, let’s go down to Eilat.’ So we took a car and went to Eilat.”

To win his trust

Menkin and Nir’s forays to the city on the Red Sea went on for about three years, and they had to contend with many challenges. First, they had to win Morad’s trust. At the time, a year after the attack, he had begun to speak again, but sparingly, and only with those closest to him. He was still suspicious and cautious.

“When we arrived there together the first time, I approached Morad, I told him my personal story about my injury and trauma, and told him that I had also experienced what the dolphins make you feel when you’re depressed,” says Nir. “I told him that in my opinion his story should be told, and I introduced him to Dani. He listened and said to us, ‘I have no problem with your starting to film, but only from a distance, and without sound, and without showing my face.’ That’s how it started.”

Another problem they faced was the fact that a long time had passed from the start of Morad’s rehab to the moment when they arrived in Eilat with their cameras. Menkin and Nir knew they were relatively late in joining the process the boy was undergoing.

The two went to meet the psychiatrist who was treating Morad, Ilan Kutz, in order to hear details about his situation and his therapy.

“During that meeting, Dr. Kutz described the condition of Morad, who was barely speaking at the time,” says Menkin. “He said, ‘Listen, the truth is that I did some filming for the purpose of medical documentation, because this case is very interesting.’ And then he pulled out cassettes of his meetings with Morad that he had filmed, and offered them to me. We were in shock. Immediately afterward we went to check the cassettes, and when we watched the one with the meeting at the beginning of the film, in which Morad is seen to be in total shock, we looked at each other and said to ourselves: ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’”

They soon discovered that the people working at the Dolphin Reef had also recorded Morad’s progress on video. When they understood that Nir and Menkin had decided to make a film about him, they also agreed to give them filmed materials. “That’s a rare thing, that you begin to follow a story, begin to understand how crazy it is, and then discover that everything is recorded on video going back a year,” says Menkin. “I call that ‘documentary gold.’”

This documentary gold was given to them with strings attached. “Dr. Kutz told us specifically: ‘This film won’t be screened, and you won’t receive my permission and Morad’s permission to screen it, until Morad is ready for it ... Throughout he will have to grant permission for everything you do,’” says Nir. “Of course for us it was a big risk, because we actually started to make a film with a hero who barely spoke, who claimed that he was a dolphin, and wasn’t prepared to talk about his home or to see his mother. We had even come with a vision that this film would help him close a circle, get back to himself. We knew that it was a process that would take years.”

“Dolphin Boy,” which was developed as part of the Greenhouse project ‏(a mixed-funding program for encouraging documentary production in the Mediterranean region‏), and was made with the support of Israel’s Second Radio and Television Authority, the New Israeli Foundation for Cinema and Television and the Mifal Hapayis national lottery, had its debut screening in April at Hot Docs, the Canadian International Documentary Festival, and was purchased by two important television channels in Europe: the Franco-German Arte and British Channel 4. Thanks to being aired on those channels, say the two directors, over a million people have already seen the film, which Judith Manassen Ramon produced together with them.

“One of the problems with post-traumatic stress − and I am personally familiar with it − is that you are simply ashamed,” says Nir. “You feel guilty about what happened, feel that you could have prevented it. And the process of coming and saying I’m a victim but I’m also a hero, because I’m able to talk about it and to reveal what happened, suddenly turns you into an inspiration for many other people. Morad now receives a lot of requests from post-traumatic stress sufferers from all over the world, people who saw the film and write to us that his story has given them strength to live.”

“All along, Morad’s psychiatrist kept repeating to us that this film was part of his healing process, part of the therapy; that the fact that Morad agreed to reveal it makes him a hero instead of a victim,” says Menkin, adding that Morad’s attackers will soon be entering prison to begin serving their sentence.