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March 14, 2012 4:44 pm

From Dolphins to Shimon Peres

avatar by Michele Alperin / JointMedia News Service

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Photo: www.dolphinfilmboy.com.

Israeli filmmaker Dani Menkin has a nose for the unusual.

His 2005 documentary “39 Pounds of Love” grew out of a chance meeting in a bar with a severely disabled computer animator. The basic story elements of his latest film, “Dolphin Boy,” now making its way through Jewish film festivals, are so out of the ordinary that the film might easily be mistaken as fiction: an Arab boy suffering from post-traumatic disassociation after a vicious beating by his schoolmates; an intensely devoted father; a therapy facility at a dolphin reef in Eilat; and a psychiatrist willing to refer his patient to said reef.

“When you find such a good story, such a great character like the father, and dolphins, you know there is potential here,” Menkin tells JointMedia News Service. “From there on it is hard work.”

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The hard work of making this film extended over four years, as the filmmakers waited for the kinds of surprises that create dramatic movement—moments due largely to the creation of trust with the documentary’s subjects. “Being close to your characters, you get some kind of intimacy,” says Menkin, who quickly adds, “Also, we were lucky.”

Beyond the footage of the growing relationship between boy and dolphin, Menkin’s most recent documentary captures moments so apt that they almost appear scripted and rehearsed—over dinner at a campsite, a nearly silent and inexpressive Morad unexpectedly reaching out for a hug as his father tries to convince him that his life could return to normal; Morad’s father praying by the water as a dolphin rises up beyond him; and the formerly disassociated Morad breaking into tears when he returns home after a four-year absence.

After Menkin learned about Morad’s life from underwater cameraman Yonatan Nir, the film’s co-director, he was immediately interested. “I said literally, ‘Let’s jump into the water and try to make the film; if it won’t be a movie, there will be at least dolphins,'” Menkin says.

Not knowing what the future would bring vis-à-vis Morad’s recovery, the filmmakers were relieved to note on their first visit to the reef that Morad had already made some connection with the dolphins. Psychiatrist Dr. Kutz also agreed that, if Morad recovered and gave his permission, they would have access to Dr. Kutz’s research footage of Morad’s first visits to the doctor after lapsing into disassociation.

The co-directors added complementary perspectives to this multilayered film. Nir, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder himself after being wounded in the second Lebanon War, swam with the dolphins and understood their power to ease trauma. As for Menkin, he brought simply his love of the dolphins. “I felt like they were magical mammals,” he says, “and I wanted to be with them as much as possible, just like Morad.”

When Menkin realized that his childhood goal of playing professional soccer was out of reach, he became a sports reporter and was soon directing short television films to profile famous players. His first long film, “Israeli Hoop Dreams”—which followed a high school basketball team to the championship—marked a transformation in Menkin’s personal identity. “When I finished this film, I felt like that’s who I am, a film maker, a director; that’s what I wanted to do,” he says.

Menkin did not study filmmaking in the university, but absorbed the skills he would need from experts in film workshops in Maine and Israel: how to tell a story quickly; how to direct actors; and, by taking an acting class, how “to understand what is going on in the minds of actors.”

When Menkin met Ami Ankilewitz, the protagonist of “39 Pounds of Love,” he wondered what Ankilewitz was doing in a bar. What he learned was simple: “He’s a cool guy who doesn’t see himself as disabled at all and wants to live life to the fullest.” But it took a cross-country journey together and “a lot of blood, sweat, and heart” from Menkin to absorb and hone this bit of wisdom.

Beyond the challenge of keeping Ankilewitz healthy during the trip [what trip?], the filmmakers had to figure out how to attract an audience for a film about a man whose skeletal, emaciated body was so difficult to look at. “When we started, people thought no one would want to see this film,” says Menkin. “But I felt that if I will make it happy, incorporate humor and his animation and music, and shape his life as a fictional story, it will work.”

Menkin has also directed a documentary for Israel’s Reshet Bet television channel on the life of Shimon Peres, president of Israel, with comedian Eli Yatzpan. It turned out to be not that difficult to balance this “odd couple combination.”

“As for handling Yatzpan’s shenanigans,” Menkin says, “sometimes when you have such talent as that, you have to let him do what he knows how to do best, and not interfere.” This was easy because Peres, who Menkin has always admired, was a willing collaborator and clearly enjoyed Yatzpan’s humor. “I think for those politicians, sometimes they have so many serious meetings, some kind of comic relief is nice,” says Menkin, “and I think it’s good to show that Israeli leaders have a good sense of humor.”

Recently picked up for television distribution around the world, Menkin’s 2010 fictional film “Je T’aime, I Love You Terminal” is a romantic tale about a 30ish man who misses his airplane connection in Prague on the way to meeting his fiancée in the United States. He ends up spending 24 hours with a charismatic, free-spirited British girl, upending his life.

Whether Menkin is working on fiction or documentary, he is telling a story, but each requires a different approach to the material. For fiction, Menkin shapes the story largely from the start, by writing a script. With a documentary, he begins with an outline and shapes the script while editing. Menkin suggests that, for him, the boundaries between these two cinematic forms are vague.

“I like to make my documentary feel like fiction and have my fiction feel like a documentary,” he says.

Both of his successful documentaries convey a strong message of hope that, for Menkin, is also applicable to his filmmaking. “You should never give up hope,” he says. “[On] any journey you take there will be obstacles, and you need to go through them and reach your goals.”

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