If we could talk to the animals

The dolphin is the star but the real interest is elsewhere in a new documentary, reports Tom McKinlay.

A woman lies floating with a dolphin. Both have their eyes closed.

The woman tells us what she's thinking. The dolphin does not.

And so it goes in Soul in the Sea, the New Zealand documentary by one-time Dunedin resident Amy Taylor about the interactions between the people of Whakatane and Moko the friendly dolphin.

Moko turned up in Whakatane in 2010, after three years entertaining the locals at Mahia, and immediately nudged and noodled his way into the hearts of many.

The documentary focuses on the relationship between single mother Kirsty Carrington, the floating woman, and Moko. For Carrington, their meeting began a journey of self-discovery. For Moko, well, who knows, but all sorts of anthropomorphism ensues.

As a result of the necessary inscrutability of the dolphin, the camera lens spends much of the time on people, a point Taylor concedes.

''I started out thinking it was just going to be a story about Moko himself. But as I got into it, the interesting dynamics were the people and the community.''

Taylor, who completed a postgraduate diploma in natural history film-making at the University of Otago, happened to be living in Papamoa, about an hour's drive from Whakatane, when Moko took up residence.

As someone with both an interest in film-making and a marine science degree, she was soon on the scene.

Her self-funded documentary has now been accepted into competition alongside the likes of the BBC Natural History Unit and National Geographic Television in the prestigious Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival.

As Moko splashes on, the community dynamics Taylor captures become increasing fraught, as the collective euphoria of the swimming public meets words of caution from Department of Conservation staff and outright hostility from some fisher folk.

Taylor says she began by maintaining some professional distance from it all, but even she finally weakened in the face of Moko's charms, putting aside the camera to enter the water.

''After that one experience without the camera and just actually messing around and having fun with everyone else, I could totally see why everyone was so hooked.''

A Doc staff member interviewed provides another take: ''It's not Moko we have to deal with all the time. It's all the associated things of what people do around him. All of these things are not Moko. They are all generated by people.''

Taylor says she can see Doc's point of view, but also observed Moko's apparently finely tuned ability to tailor his behaviour to a given situation.

When around children or the elderly, he was particularly careful. If someone was being more boisterous, Moko would respond to that.

''I was very close to him a lot when I was filming and he never actually hurt me,'' she says.

Inevitably, in a film about interactions involving a wild animal, the element of uncertainty creates a sense of unease. The power of the 3m, 300kg dolphin is apparent time and again and the degree to which the interplay is controlled by Moko often clear.

The documentary also comments early on that such encounters between people and dolphins are rare and almost always end badly.

See it

Thursday, August 15, 6.15pm
Friday, August 16, 1.30pm


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