Meet the Men Behind the Provocative Short Film Dolphin Lover

Update 4/14/16: In honor of National Dolphin Day, the filmmakers have made the full Dolphin Lover documentary available for streaming. Watch the full documentary in the video above.

It's hard not to look at the poster for Dolphin Lover and immediately wonder whether the documentary is serious. It doesn't get much more provocative than the words "This man had sex with a dolphin," and it's a surefire way to pull folks in to Kareem Tabsch and Joey Daoud's short film, Dolphin Lover. The documentary — directed/produced by Tabsch and shot/edited/produced by Daoud — presents the story of Malcolm J. Brenner and his romantic and sexual affair with a captive, bottlenose dolphin named Dolly.

To many, that revelation is likely terribly shocking and truly awful, but Dolphin Lover wasn't made to shame Brenner. Rather, it allows him to tell his story through film, and it's surprisingly captivating to watch him genuinely bare it all. It's a candid film, inspired by Brenner's book, Wet Goddess: Recollections of a Dolphin Lover, comprising a lengthy interview with Brenner — who describes his relationship with affection and detail — along with archival footage from Floridaland, Brenner's personal photos and footage, as well as original art for the film.

See also: Zoophiles love and have sex with animals. Will the world ever accept them?

With the film's recent unveiling at Slamdance, where it officially had its world premiere Sunday, January 25, New Times interviewed both of the filmmakers, as well as Brenner.

New Times: You have a knack for documenting rather offbeat stories — first Cherry Pop and now Dolphin Lover. What draws you to these narratives rather than something more typical of a doc?

Kareem Tabsch: I've always been fascinated by and interested in the offbeat, that which lives in the fringes and leaves a lasting impression. There are so many people with unique stories living in our midst that we often don't give a second glance; those stories fascinate me, and I want to share them with the world. Whether it's the story of an eccentric millionaire couple who spoils their cat, as in the case of Cherry Pop: The Story of the World's Fanciest Cat, or the tale of a man's romantic and sexual relationship, as with Dolphin Lover, once you know these stories, they stick with you, as I hope the films themselves do too.

From a subject-matter perspective, I am also very interested in the human-animal bond, and I think our films explore two very different aspects of that. I also can't deny that I embrace what I affectionately call "weird Florida," and I definitely think that's a motivation for me in making these films, and in that regard I am actually rather inspired by my friends Billy Corben, Alfred Spellman, and David Cypkin, whose body of work exposes the seedy underbelly of the Sunshine State.

What brought you to wanting to make a documentary about a story as provocative as Malcolm Brenner's and his experience with Dolly the dolphin?

Tabsch: The films that I love the most illicit a visceral reaction in me that remains long after the final credits and which keep me thinking and talking about them. I'm interested in creating films that do the same for other people and make us think about things we likely wouldn't otherwise. However uncomfortable it can be as a subject matter, what Malcolm experienced is unique and very real and very serious to him. He is a member of a community (zoophiles) who live on the outermost fringes of society. Their reality is something most of us can not comprehend, relate to or know much about- all of that makes it all the more appealing to me as a subject to tackle.

The documentary maintains a very unbiased perspective; even though the story itself sways between sympathetic and unsettling, it's never mean-spirited. How hard was it to remain impartial and did you ever have any worries that people might react poorly to this story or expect you to be making light of his experience?

KT: It was important for us from the onset to make a film that neither vilified nor defended Malcolm's actions or experiences, though I do expect many people hoped this was going to be us just ridiculing him, which is never what we wanted to do. While there's a great deal about Malcolm's story that makes me uncomfortable and which I can not relate to, the film, at it's core, is about Malcom's experiences and his truth as he recalls it so I didn't think I needed to place my own judgement on the film. I'd rather allow the audience to decide how they feel about the whole thing. Though, make no mistake about it we knew from the beginning that this is a controversial subject matter that would make for a polarizing film that not everyone is going to react well to. I'm okay with that. I'm not trying to sway anyone one way or another. I'm just trying to share a unique story. We kept reminding ourselves that through the process which made it easy to remain impartial.

Why the decision to make a short documentary rather than either a feature-length doc or a narrative fiction short based on Brenner's Sea Goddess?

Joey Daoud: We had discussed early on what the appropriate format for Malcolm's story would be. It felt like it could be a strong short documentary. The only way a feature seemed viable is if this was a longer piece on zoophilia.

We went the documentary route because the truth really is stranger than fiction. And when the format is fictionalized, there's always that thought in the back of the audience's mind of, "oh, did that really happen or did they make that up?" When you see Dolphin Lover, everything Malcolm says is his true recollections of his experience.

To bounce off the concept of making something that actually depicted these events, in the film you use these pieces of animation to complement what Brenner says about his and Dolly's night together. Why that art instead of simply his words or old footage like much of the rest of the short? And how hard was it to come across people willing to provide that art?

JD: The animation is only used during Malcolm and Dolly's love making scene. In an early cut we just had an edit of Malcolm on camera describing the courtship. But we didn't just want it to be a talking head - film is a visual medium and we needed to keep the audience interested. From a practical standpoint, there just isn't any material of Malcolm and Dolly in coitus. And even if there was we were not looking to make a graphic film. So some type of animated interpretation of the event seemed the best way to go to illustrate the experience and add another dimension to the film.

I put a call out of animators, not completely describing the project but just hinting that it was unusual. When I got some replies I went into more detail. One animator flat out refused the project, saying he wasn't comfortable with the subject. Luckily JP Torres was up for the task and did an amazing job.

Your world premiere just happened this weekend at Slamdance. How did that go? Were there audience walkouts, any uncomfortable questions following the film, or a general sense of acceptance for the story depicted?

JD: We couldn't have asked for a better audience at the premiere. It was a packed house, people were sitting in the aisles and standing in the back of the theater. The emotional response was exactly what we hopped for — laughter at the right parts, silence when the subject turned serious. We had a lot of questions after — way more than we could get to. I'm not sure how many people's views changed from their preconceptions before they came into the theater, but there was a general acceptance of the film and Malcolm's story and a desire to know more. Despite the controversial aspect of the subject matter, we didn't have any walk outs. The audience was genuinely interested.

Now that things have gone successfully at Slamdance, what's your plan for this film and what's next in the books for you in terms of filmmaking?

JD: Slamdance is a great launching point for the festival circuit, so we'll be screening Dolphin Lover at various film festivals. Eventually, it will find its way online. Kareem and I have a good track record so far of bringing weird Florida stories to the big screen, so we've got some new ones in development and are always looking for more (which Florida never fails to deliver).

KT: I've promised myself that I am only going to work with people who I want to work with and who I love and respect. That's been the case at O Cinema and it's certainly the case in collaborating with Joey. Making a movie, even a short one, is so much work and stress that if you don't enjoy it then you're doing it wrong. There are plenty of other stories we want to tell, I'm just as excited to be able to make them as I am to continue to collaborate with Joey.

How comfortable were you when first approached about this project?

Malcolm Brenner: How comfortable was I? I would say that I made a rather snap judgment about the guys based on our first meeting and the subsequent extended talk back at my place. I sensed that they took me seriously. However, what really convinced me was when Kareem said, "I believe you were in love with her." If I had doubted their intentions for one second, I don't think I would have decided to work with them, but trusting my intuition about them seems to have paid off as I am very satisfied with the film.

And more importantly, how do you feel about the way the documentary went and what do you hope for most with the release of this short film?

MB: I feel the documentary went very well. I think it is about the best on-screen interpretation of my experience that I could hope for, and I think the audience response at Slamdance confirms that this is, for most people, an eye-opening subject. It pushes their comfort zones, even as being this public has pushed mine. I hope the release of this film will stimulate greater understanding of dolphins and their complex lives, that it will encourage people to do what they can to protect dolphins and preserve their environment. That is all I have ever wanted out of publicizing my story.

How did you come about the decision to publicize your story in the first place? Was it cathartic at all to be able to share this with the world? And was telling it to a camera any more or less difficult than writing your book originally?

MB: I decided to publicize my story in 1973 at the suggestion of Dr. John C. Lilly, a controversial neuroscientist who had tried to communicate with dolphins in the 1960s. Lilly was the only scientist who would listen openly to my experience without trying to explain to me how I was anthropomorphizing the dolphins. I felt I had had a rare experience with another sentient species, and that people needed to know dolphins are capable of loving a human being.

It has been very cathartic to be able to share this experience. Before I published Wet Goddess in 2010, I was very depressed about ever being able to tell my story. I think it's important that I do so as it explores little-known aspects of dolphin behavior that may have bearing on the question of how we treat these creatures. I also think it is not the kind of story that either SeaWorld or PETA will tell, so it devolved down to me to tell it originally.

Although the interview for the film lasted almost four hours, it was a lot easier telling my story to a sympathetic interviewer like Kareem than it was writing the book. I started the book in 1973, worked on it in a very haphazard fashion for eight years before putting it down. I was simply still too close to the material and too emotionally affected by the shock of rejection. I picked up the book again in 1994 when I heard Flipper was being remade with Paul Hogan. (What a lousy movie that was, but at least no dolphins got spear-gunned making it, like in the original.) The book's prologue was the last part to be written, just a few months before publication in 2010.

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Juan Antonio Barquin is a Miami-based writer who programs the queer film series Flaming Classics and serves as co-editor of Dim the House Lights. Barquin aspires to be Bridget Jones.