Yonatan Nir, Israeli director of award-winning Dolphin Boy

"Once you've changed your own perception, you start changing the world around you."

Israel, Events and Festivals

Yonatan Nir, Israeli director of award-winning Dolphin Boy

Israeli director Yonatan Nir spoke to Euromed Audiovisual at Brussels' Millenium Film Festival last June, where he won the Young Audience Award (read article). He related his experience taking part in Greenhouse, a training initiative financed by the Euromed Audiovisual programme, where he and co-director Dani Menkin developed their documentary film Dolphin Boy.


You are here in Brussels with your film Dolphin Boy, a project developed during the Greenhouse documentary development programme. What did this programme bring you?

I came to Greenhouse once I had completed my film school in Israel, and I felt that I did not really know how to make films. I had a good story with Dolphin Boy, but I did not know how to put it together. We were selected to participate to Greenhouse, together with my co-direcor Dani Menkin and my producer Judith Manassen-Ramon. It was an amazing experience. It was three four-days seminar spread out during the year. It is not long but really intense, and it occupied a whole year of my life. You spend time with the best teachers and filmmakers in Europe, and the programme teaches you how to become a professional filmmaker. For me as a film student, it was a kick-start for my career.

Was the learning experience really different from your film school?

Yes, my school was very different. It was not practical. When I started Greenhouse, they took what I knew and elaborated on it, focusing on what is important and helping me to understand how things work in the real world.

From an artistic point of view, how did it transform your project?

First of all you have the possibility to meet other filmmakers, people who are not from Israel or the Middle East. You get to talk with different people about yourself and your life, regardless of politics. 

From a professional point of view, you go there with a project and you sit with teachers, and they help you reconstruct the whole project and focus on what is the story and how you want to tell it. They help you figure out what you want to do with your film. As a director, it helped me a lot, and as producer too.

They know the commissioning editors and they teach you how they evaluate a project, what you should or shouldn't write, and how and when to present a trailer. I realised that many of the concepts I had in my mind were wrong. You talk with the commissioning editors, and you try to figure out what they want.

For me it was fascinating. It helped me realise how I can be part of the solution. I used to write very long detailed synopses and, with Greenhouse, I realised that you need to simplify things for somebody who doesn't have time.

From an international perspective, did Greenhouse help you find producers?

Definitely, I made connections that I still have today with broadcasters, distributors and other producers…

What was the budget of Dolphin Boy?

Around $200,000. When we started Greenhouse, we only had one broadcaster and when we finished we had a distributor, two broadcasters -ARTE and Channel 4 - and the distributor was already making presales. 

Tell us more about the film.

Dolphin Boy is about a young Israeli who stopped communicating after a traumatic experience. He is about to be sent into a mental institution but his father prefers taking him to a special centre in Eilat that offers treatment with dolphins. Dolphins have the ability to communicate in a non-verbal way. When he is finally rehabilitated into real life, we realise that it is only the beginning of the story because the teenager forgot his past. He does not want to be an Arab anymore and go back to his mother. The film is about trauma, how terrible human violence can be for a human being, and on the contrary, the power of love and nature that can make a change and bring people back to life.

One thing that I love in the film - and one of the reasons why they gave us the award - is that we brought this film from Israel that is not about the conflict.

It is about the differences between Arabs and Israelis without saying a word about politics, just by focusing on the simple story of a father who wants to save his son. And the dolphins don't care whether he's Arab, Jewish or Christian, rich or poor. For me personally, it was amazing. I became a friend of a family in a village in which I had never entered before.

What motivated you to apply to Greenhouse?

My motivation to join the programme was mainly because of the quality offered, but the fact that I was able to talk with people from Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Palestine helped a lot. For me, to see the other side and build bridges between people is what matters the most.

What do you think about the current situation in Israel?

Yesterday, I met four people from Iran, and we had an amazing conversation. To think that my government is against their government and vice-versa… Who is going to pay the price in the end? It's going to be me and my daughters. But when we meet face to face in Brussels, we have no problem and we can speak about everything and I'm sure we could even found a solution.

From each side, film directors have no understanding or compassion for the troubles of the other side. I really liked the film that won the festival [Palestinian director Mehdi Fleifel's A World Not Ours]. It shows the real issue of this very small piece of land. The problem is that there are two groups of people who are refugees - Jews are refugees and Palestinian are refugees - and they both want to live in the same place.

In the end, I think that the answer is in communication between simple people. This is what can build the trust needed in order to find a solution. It can start from politicians, filmmakers, people that meet at festivals [and] put their vision together. Once you've changed your own perception then you start changing the world around you.

Is your next project going to be about Israeli politics or religion?

I'm actually working on a project in Mexico on La Malinche - and other projects too but this one is at a more advanced stage. La Malinche was an Indian slave who was offered to Hernán Cortés when he arrived in Mexico. She became his interpreter, lover and the mother of the first Mexicans. She advised him without knowing that it would change the world. There is a researcher who is trying to put together the story of her life.

He just found out that somewhere in the middle of Mexico there is a woman - a shaman who lives in a small village near a volcano - and she is believed to be the reincarnation of La Malinche. We followed that researcher and made a 1,500 km trip to that village to shoot the film.

We already have [received] good feedback from the filmmakers and distributors. For me as a filmmaker it is really hard to deal with the problems that we have inside of Israel, so I'm making films about the troubles of other people!

Maybe one day I'll be able to deal with the problems in my country, but at the moment there is something very hopeless in the situation in Israel. But I believe that we can change people's mind with a small story like Dolphin Boy where Jews and Arabs work together to save somebody.

And the film goes on, there are 20 to 50 different broadcasters worldwide, there are probably two million people who have already watched it. And it's going to be released in the US and in Australia... These people see other stories and they change their perception.

My Greenhouse teacher, Nenad Puhavski, told me something that I really liked: "Every filmmaker needs to defend a cause, something that will make them feel that they are making films to make the world a better place."

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