Mix bottlenose dolphins, a reef in Eilat, Morad, a severely traumatized teenage boy, Assad, his Middle Eastern father who drops his ‘male ego’ to save his son, and Dr. Ilan Kutz, a psychiatrist open to alternative therapies, and what do you get? Dolphin Boy, an amazingly poignant, yet thought-provoking documentary all divers should see.
Text by Deborah Rubin Fields – Photograph ã Amos Nachoum
Toward the beginning of this new Israeli-made documentary, both Morad’s father and his psychiatrist briefly narrate the cause of Morad’s non-responsive state: a text message from Morad to a girl in his high school class is intercepted by the girl’s older brother, who decides Morad is making inappropriate and punishable advances toward his sister. The sibling gathers his friends together to give Morad the beating of his life. When they are finished Morad is close to death. Unable to fight off so many attackers, Morad, intriguingly, dissociates himself from the beating as it occurs.
After his physical wounds heal he remains totally dissociated from his surroundings.
No on-screen violence accompanies this narrative. Yet the viewer is struck by how this single act of violence has so dramatically traumatized a previously healthy adolescent.
Morad is first filmed within a month of the attack. Viewers see a completely withdrawn young man. There’s no eye contact, no verbal communication. Standard therapy fails. Before hospitalizing him in a psychiatric facility, his psychiatrist suggests to the family that Morad enter the therapy program at Eilat’s Dolphin Reef in the Red Sea.
Morad’s family literally puts everything on the line to save his soul. His father sells off property, takes out loans and leaves his wife and family to accompany his son during his extended treatment in Eilat. Through this time Morad is detached, unable to see his mother, as such, though ironically the one word he does verbalize after the attack is “mother”.
In this documentary we see a lot of Morad diving with dolphins. Early in his recovery he evolves into a ‘dolphin boy’. He free dives without mask to a depth of at least 65 feet (20m), eventually ‘mimicking’ the breathing of a bottlenose, that is, exhaling through his nostrils the way a bottlenose exhales through its blowhole. This is one indication of how much he identifies physically with this sea mammal.
Bonding with the dolphins at the Eilat Reef seems to free Morad to connect with human society, which might be seen as the second stage of his treatment. Note, the word re-connect does not apply, at least at this point, since Morad still hasn’t dealt with the actual traumatic event. Indeed, Dr. Kutz fears what might happen if some other event triggers this horrible emotional trauma to re-surface. Even Morad himself tells viewers that while he was reborn at the reef, the dolphin therapy did not heal him. Hard as it is, the third stage in his recovery comes when Morad decides to deal with the actual attack in his therapy sessions.
Much of the available information on dolphin therapy is anecdotal and centers on the helpful connection between dolphins and children with severe communication difficulties, such as autism, or those with physical disabilities. Yet Morad’s problem is rooted in a traumatic beating. His challenge is to again learn to trust people.
Thus, Morad’s situation is more akin to the circumstances of an abused child whose experience has left him wary and fearful of trusting other humans. Significantly, it’s been shown in the rehabilitation of child abuse victims that regular contact with animals has led some children to verbalize their first words or reach out to show empathy and affection to the animals. (see Therapy Pets Aid in Recovery of Child Abuse, Neglect, http://scatenadaniels.com/promises2kids-media-advisory-pet-therapy/).
In Dolphin Boy viewers see Morad start to bond with the dolphins in the first session. This connection isn’t really explained, nor is the therapy itself examined. What we see is that in Morad’s case, it just seems to ‘click’.
Various reasons might explain the dolphins’ success where, initially, family and professionals fail:
- The dolphins are non-judgemental, perhaps sensing his vulnerability and are accepting of Morad in his damaged state
- The dolphins provide the opportunity for safe physical contact, in the protective water environment, allowing Morad to restore tactile behavior shattered by the beating
- The dolphins’ graceful movement is non threatening, even calming in the way home aquariums contribute to relaxation
In the brutal attack Morad lost his sense of control. This suggests another reason for the success of Morad’s dolphin therapy may be that he unconsciously valued the dolphins’ freedom to come and go, make contact, or not, with humans: their control. Morad’s post-trauma socialization mirrors the dolphin behavior although this comes about in his own time and on his terms. After a year of dolphin therapy, Morad decides to stay at the reef to work and to further develop relationships with the staff. Only later does he leave the reef to return home to his family and community, occasionally visiting the reef afterwards.
The Eilat reef dolphins are not ‘obligated’ to interact with human visitors. They do receive snacks from people, however, the viewer of this documentary may assume that they’re attracted to Morad for reasons beyond edible incentives.
We are left to consider questions of how and why dolphin therapy worked to such beneficial effect with Morad. The teen grew up around animals, horses for example. Did this in any way play a role in his dolphin bonding? His hometown of Kalansuwa is situated near the Mediterranean Sea. Morad and his father were competent swimmers, both very comfortable in the water. Did this factor into the equation?
The record shows that men are more hesitant to pursue therapy. It can also be said that all too often pride and revenge go hand in hand in Middle Eastern culture. Against this background and as a resident of Israel, I was especially impressed that Morad’s father, Assad, chose a non-violent response to his son’s brutal beating.
His life affirming choice was explicit on a Jerusalem stage following the film’s premiere in Israel. There, the audience was treated to a remarkable post-production gathering of an ‘intact’ Morad, his father Assad, Dr. Kutz and the dolphin reef staff. They embraced.
Morad’s rehabilitation allowed him to testify against his attackers. The day following the film’s premiere, they began serving their jail sentences.
See this movie. Then share your thoughts with other divers.
Documentary, 70 minutes
Hebrew/Arabic with English subtitles
Dani Menkin-writer, director, producer
Yonatan Nir-writer, director, producer, underwater cameraman
Judith Manassen-Ramon, producer
For more information go to: www.dolphinboyfilm.com
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