Dolphin Boy dips, soars
By Michael Fox Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer
Like a native of Los Angeles, Dani Menkin effortlessly conducts a phone interview from his car without missing a beat, or his exit.
The energetic filmmaker isn’t a native, though he divides his time between Southern California and his native Israel. Last year he was also a visiting artist at Syracuse University and he’s presently developing a narrative filmmaking lab at Wesleyan University.
“You ask where I live,” Menkin says with a chuckle. “My wife asks me the same question.”
Menkin’s latest film, the captivating and inspiring documentary, Dolphin Boy, screens at the Dayton Jewish International Film Festival on April 26 as part of the Community Israel Independence Day Celebration and Dinner.
Dolphin Boy follows the difficult, unexpected journey of an Israeli Arab teenager after a brutal beating leaves him uncommunicative and nonfunctional.
Morad’s psychiatrist, the renowned post-trauma expert Dr. Ilan Kurtz, tries several treatments without success. In a last-ditch effort before having to institutionalize his patient, he proposes sending Morad to the dolphin reef in Eilat.
“Not too many people, and not too many psychiatrists, would say that someone in such a bad situation could use such unconventional help,” Menkin says. “There’s no scientific proof that dolphins help.”
Nonetheless, over a period of several months the treatment (which primarily consists of hours in the water with the mammals) has a transformative effect.
It’s not all smooth sailing for Morad, to be sure. But he does regain his life, and his family gets their son and brother back.
Menkin got involved with the project through Yonathan Nir, a veteran underwater cameraman with whom he’d worked on a television series for National Geographic. Nir, who was at the dolphin reef at the same time as Morad, was moved in part because he suffered from post-trauma after being wounded during the second Lebanon war.
Although the filmmakers were on hand to follow the teen’s progress, they needed footage from the “before” stage. They were extremely fortunate that Dr. Kurtz had videotaped his sessions with Morad and made them available — with one condition.
“Documentary filmmaking is like going fishing,” Menkin explains. “You never know what will happen. Maybe that’s also why it’s so exciting. You’re always taking a chance. In our case, the risk was even higher because Dr. Kurtz said we were allowed to use (the footage) only if Morad, at the end of the road, was OK with letting us use it. We would not be able to show the film if Morad would not approve it.”
Morad agreed. However, the cooperation of Morad’s father was equally critical. He provided the filmmakers with access and audiences with a character to identify with. A well-off rancher, he made enormous sacrifices on Morad’s behalf.
“The father was in a very bad financial situation,” Menkin says. “He gave up everything: He sold his farm, he stopped working, he left his house and his family, he dedicated himself 100 percent to the healing of Morad. This is something I’ve never seen to such an extent. I was born and raised with a Jewish mom, and I could not believe that an Arab dad could be as devoted.”
Dolphin Boy is neither a social-issue documentary nor a political film, but it’s inevitable that Western viewers will see it as a rare ray of hope amid the deteriorating Israeli-Arab relationship.
“Many times Yonathan and I spoke about the Arab aspect in the film,” Menkin says, “until we realized it is not important because it is a universal story. If it doesn’t play a role, why should we emphasize it? I always say the dolphins didn’t know if Morad was an Arab or a Jew. They didn’t care. Maybe that’s one of many things we can learn from the dolphins.”
Menkin’s previous doc, the feel-good road movie 39 Pounds of Love (2005), was shortlisted for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. He made his narrative debut last year with Je T’aime, I Love You Terminal, which played a few U.S. festivals.
“I love that people with heart enjoy watching my movies,” Menkin concluded. “Whether they are Jews, Christians, Arabs, Mormons or Hindus, I don’t care. That’s the way I make films: universal stories that are supposed to catch anyone.”
Dolphin Boy will be screened on Thursday, April 26 at 7 p.m. as part of the Community Israel Independence Day Celebration and Dinner, which begins at 5:30 p.m. at the Boonshoft CJCE, 525 Versailles Dr., Centerville. There is no charge for the film. For more information, call Karen Steiger at 853-0372, or go to www.daytonjewishcommunitycenter.org.