Malcolm Brenner will never forget where he met the greatest love of his life: in an aquatic pen. As she slowly swam around his feet, Brenner couldn’t take his eyes off her slippery, dripping skin, her powerful musculature. The two locked eyes, and it was then that Brenner felt an electric pulse of connection with Dolly the dolphin.
It was 1971, in the waning days of Old Florida roadside attractions, and Brenner was working a summer as a photographer at the now-defunct Sarasota-area marine park Floridaland. This is where he would kick off a relationship he’s been trying to share with the world for 40-plus years.
Brenner, both an out zoophile and a marine-life activist, claims his romantic and sexual relationship with Dolly the dolphin proved the creatures’ empathy and intelligence are even greater than we thought.
Whether you’re grossed out or intrigued already, you’ll only likely become more so during a viewing of “Dolphin Lover,” a new short documentary that premiered last night at the Slamdance Film Festival. Running concurrently to the fancier Sundance in Park City, Utah, Slamdance showcases independent, often outré films like this one, produced and directed by Miami-based filmmakers Kareem Tabsch and Joey Daoud.
Rather than follow the typical news-package or documentary route—interviewing Brenner as well as other talking heads and experts—Tabsch and Daoud chose to let him speak mostly for himself. We hear about the unfolding of the relationship as Brenner tells it, complete with his archival photos from the era.
“I started rubbing her along her back, working my way to her flukes–her tail,” Brenner recalls early in the film, of his first encounter with Dollly. “And as I was rubbing her and moving my hand towards her tail, Dolly was slowly rolling around her long axis.” It gets more detailed from there. There’s a lot of such directness, and potentially uncomfortable, toe-curling speech in the film. The phrase “genital slit” shows up just a couple of minutes in.
“In our first iteration we thought we wanted to talk to Malcolm, but we should also talk to a marine biologist, an animal rights activist, a sex therapist—other viewpoints. But what we quickly realized is that the viewpoints other people were going to share were normative,” Tabsch says. “Ultimately we thought it was more powerful to let him speak and let viewers walk away with their own decisions.”
As Brenner recounts it in “Dolphin Lover,” he first met Dolly while photographing her, and soon found himself on the receiving end of a fairly aggressive dolphin seduction. Dolly might rub herself against him suggestively, or gently run her teeth down his arm. Brenner took this as consent, and claims that yes, eventually, they did the deed, albeit somewhat hampered by the gravity-less conditions of the water in her tank.
How he explains (or, perhaps, rationalizes) this forms the crux of what viewers will have to consider. Brenner insists his relationship was romantic, not just sexual, and showed that dolphins are much smarter and more like humans than most ever consider.
If it all sounds far-fetched, well, “Dolphin Lover” viewers do indeed have to suspend a bit of disbelief. Tabsch and Daoud corroborated Brenner’s stint at Floridaland and other details of his story. But beyond that, the point of the film is to consider Brenner’s experience as he remembers it.
“Obviously when he actually has sex with the dolphin, and it’s just him and the dolphin, there really is no way to corroborate that. But it’s kind of like, why would you want to lie about something like that and go with it for 40 years and make sacrifices?” Daoud says.
“I felt that at the very least, whether the story is 100 percent accurate or not, I believe that Malcolm believes it’s 100 percent, and he’s been sharing this story for 40 years,” Tabsch says. “While some details might be changed across the years or romanticized, I do ultimately think that this is his story as he sees it and he remembers it, and that’s the film we wanted to make.”
Dying of sea-mammal-centric curiosity yet? Wondering how they finally broke up? Well, it’s an animal movie, so three guesses as to whether or not the ending turns out to be a total bummer.
After the Slamdance premiere, “Dolphin Lover” is making the festival circuit rounds before eventually landing online for viewing, so check the movie’s web site and sign up for email updates. In the meantime, whet (also insert “wet” pun here) your appetite with the official trailer.
Brenner, meanwhile, has also written a somewhat fictionalized account of his experiences, a novel called “Wet Goddess.” You can read excerpts from the book, and find out much more about Brenner, at wetgoddess.net.