Director Interview: David Romberg on ‘The Man of the Monkey’ and the Problem of Belonging
The filmmaker discusses how his lush, mysterious new documentary helped him come to terms with the undefined space in which Jews and immigrants must live. The Man of the Monkey is available for free streaming nationwide through April 29, as are all films of the Miami Jewish Film Festival.
by Ursula Rigberg Wagner
“You only are free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.” – Maya Angelou
Shortly after viewing David Romberg’s new documentary, The Man of the Monkey, I found myself fulfilling the stereotypical duty of Jewish daughters everywhere by calling my mother. “Tell me again about what happened to Fanny” I said, referring to her grandmother, who had gotten out of Belarus before the Holocaust. I felt the need to recommit our family stories to memory, to better understand who we were. Where had we come from? Which of my ancestors had left which countries? Where would our family be living now if they hadn’t had to?
Make no mistake: this is not a Holocaust documentary. But it is a movie all about our sense of place and what it means to be from somewhere. It explores questions of whether your homeland is the place you’ve left, the place you’ve come to for safety, or nowhere at all. The movie builds to these questions, which are relevant to so many diasporic and immigrant groups, but it doesn’t start out with them.
At first, The Man of the Monkey is simply a lushly filmed story about the director returning to the small island of Ilha Grande, Brazil that he grew up on. He comes in search of the title character, “a German man with a spooky disposition living deep within the rainforest” with a monkey as his wife. The ‘Man of the Monkey’ was the stuff of stories Romberg’s father told him as a child, apparently to scare him from wandering too far from home. But Romberg had always wondered: Was the Man of the Monkey real?
In setting off to find out, he interviews as many islanders with possible knowledge of this mysterious man as he can find. The locals gamely answer his questions, but the Man of the Monkey himself is only tangentially related to the stories they tell of their lives. Importantly, it is their stories that force Romberg to face the dark history of the seemingly idyllic island of his childhood, as well as its uncertain future.
Some of my favorite documentaries (such as Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap) are those personal ones in which you witness the director growing through the process of making the film. The Man of the Monkey is such a movie, and Romberg confirmed this himself when we spoke last week. “I think filmmaking can be actually very therapeutic,” he said, “for both the person making the film but also for the participants. There’s totally this kind of psychodrama, and all kinds of things that are happening.”
The actual Man of the Monkey functions almost as a MacGuffin, existing to set the action of the film in motion. For some stretches I forgot about him entirely, lost as I was in the personal stories of the islanders who may or may not have seen him. The most stirring of these comes from a man named Seu Júlio de Almeida, who spent 50 years incarcerated in the Ilha Grande prison that the locals called “the Devil’s Cauldron.” At one point in the interview, he picks up his trumpet to play a lament, and this moment helps to form the heart of the movie. Romberg, who is currently working on a short doc just about Seu Júlio, thinks so too. “There was something going on there very psychologically and emotionally powerful,” he told me, “and it all just came together in a way that for me is one of the most interesting moments in the film, where you just feel it. You don’t know, exactly. It’s about home, and it’s about belonging; it’s about past; it’s about memories. But you can’t really express it with words.”
Enfolded in the documentary is the history of the director’s own family. Romberg’s national origins are “really complicated,” he explained to me, in his vaguely and ambiguously accented English. His parents are Jews who met after both emigrating from Argentina to Israel. He was then supposed to be born in Israel, but through an accident of very premature birth he is the only member of his family with American citizenship. And yet he spent most of his early childhood living “off-grid” on remote little Ilha Grande, Brazil. He now teaches at Muhlenberg College in Philadelphia. His film is as complex as his own story, and ultimately it throws into question the meaning of nationality, on both a geographical and individual scale.
Because the film contains so many diverging threads, I concluded the 90-minute experience feeling as though I had just seen two very good films in the span of one, but I wasn’t always sure how or if the threads came back together. Had I just watched an examination of the elusive nature of identity? Or was it the story of an island, its inhabitants traumatized by colonialism and fascism, but now being displaced by capitalism? Perhaps the island’s story serves to echo the story of Romberg’s Jewish family, with their own history of displacement due to antisemitism and violence. There are also clues that the threads are tied together by the specter of the Man of the Monkey himself, who may have been implicated both in the displacement of Jews from Europe and, later, that of longtime residents of Ilha Grande.
I asked Romberg to help me tie the threads together. In our wide-ranging interview, he discussed the artificiality of national borders, the futility of seeking utopia, and the healing power of acceptance in the face of generational trauma.
I was thinking about these concepts that you’re talking about [in the film] of “home” and “belonging.” So many of us Jews have family backgrounds like yours – not exactly the same, but where we had to get out of here, and then it wasn’t safe to stay there anymore. I was wondering if you could talk about how you see the transgenerational trauma and displacement of Jews, and what we have in common with people who are from the island you lived on.
There are these different trajectories, different diasporas that occurred, with Jews leaving Europe or leaving even other places around the world. We have this large diaspora after the second World War, but we also have diasporas to Latin America before the war, during the war, after the war. We have the frontiers in South America during colonialism. We have so many different kinds of migrations, and I think that trauma has to do now with kids that are, let’s say, third generation. It has to do with this idea of not having connections to that process but feeling that you’re affected by it because of the way that your parents and your grandparents behave. You feel that psychologically and emotionally it transfers to you, but you’re not part of that process. So you become disconnected from it, even though you’re affected by it. I think that’s potentially the trauma. It’s not that you experienced it, but it’s actually as traumatic to not have that connection to something that’s affecting you. Trying to unpack that is really complicated.
When I think of Jews in Latin America, in Argentina, in Buenos Aires, even though they had been there, and they made this place their home, they never really belonged. And culturally there were so many things that were different. Also, during the dictatorship Jews were targeted – but not only because they were Jewish, but because Jews were intellectuals. They were artists or part of the intelligentsia. That whole sector of society was targeted, but I think for Jews it was still like a very fresh wound. It was only three or four decades after what had happened in Europe. So coming to South America, experiencing authoritarian government and dictatorship was like a rude awakening. I think that’s the story of Jewish people in history, but what makes the South American diaspora interesting or really complicated is all these political things that happened fairly recently.
On the other hand, the positive part is also that it was such a different culture. So coming from Europe, being Ashkenazi Jews, arriving in a place with jungles and rainforests and deserts – these are different landscapes, different experiences. The experiences of meshing with also indigenous cultures and Afro-indigenous cultures in Brazil. There’s such an interesting collision there. Like the gauchos. They were these Jews who go to the pampas – or to the grasslands in Argentina – even before the war, and become cowboys, essentially. And still practice Judaism and still read the Torah, but they’re on horses and they have cattle. To me that’s such an interesting collision of culture, especially coming from Europe.
But essentially, the trauma is just being affected by all these stories, knowing what your parents went through, and your grandparents, but not having a cultural connection to it. That can be very confusing. It can create this kind of crisis of identity. And that’s what the film in some ways tries to address. But I think it’s universal – now it’s a universal kind of crisis. It’s not just Jewish people. I think it’s immigrants. We’re all living in such fragmented realities, both physically and now through Zoom, obviously. We’re really separate in all these different ways and existing in different ways.
I was wondering if you were also trying to say something about how, in the future, that may be the experience of those who descend from the people you interviewed for the film. Those guys are also being disconnected from their ways of life that they’ve always had.
Yeah, that’s totally a story in the film, which is: There’s the story of displacement of Jewish people and my family; there’s also displacement of the people living on the island and how those two things also come in contact. There’s a conflict there for my family, or really anybody just coming to the island and seeking this place as a refuge. But there’s this cost, and the cost is that the people who live there are increasingly struggling with how to maintain a certain kind of life that they’ve had there for a very long time. So that’s also a conflict that I felt. In some ways, yes, the island is a microcosm. It becomes a microcosm to think about – like you said – these larger issues.
The film also makes a really convincing case that environmental protection organizations are destroying cultures. I was really blown away by that. Did that surprise you at all, too?
Yes, because you don’t think about that. You tend to assume that any organization that supports preservation of ecology is going to be a positive force in a place like this. It’s interesting because it’s like a double-edged sword. In this case it ended up doing a lot of damage – a lot of harm to the local culture – and in some ways it also really became about capitalism. It was really just a way of making money and being able to support this tourism that was going to emerge after the prison closed. The prison closes, and suddenly there’s this opening. And the only way to do it and justify it politically is to align with ecological organizations – which I’m sure in some ways are trying to do something good, but without the support of the locals and without acknowledging the needs of the locals, they essentially became corrupt.
It’s still happening today, but today [the locals] are actually more organized. I think the internet and social media certainly helped the different communities on the island to talk to each other and figure out how to block things and how to go to the city and protest. Now they’re starting to have more of a voice, I would say in the last decade.
That’s good! One of your subjects says, “The purpose of these environmental organizations is to get rid of local communities.” And it did seem like that was the case. Also, early in the film I thought, “This place is really beautiful, I’d love to go there.” And then I was like, “Oh no, I don’t want to be part of this. I feel so guilty now!”
Yeah, it’s part of that history. Also, in the West we romanticize islands. We romanticize the places in literature that we write and in art. It’s partly just part of our culture that we think of these places as idyllic and pure, and in some ways we use them for the opposite. If you look at colonial history – if you look at what happened in South America in these beautiful places – it was actually quite the opposite, where a lot of horrible, violent, repressive things took place. So I wanted that to come through in the film. Because in some ways it’s also a character study of a place. You know, create a portrait of a place that is nuanced and complex and doesn’t just go with the romanticized stereotypes that we have of islands as being like, “Ah, everything’s great!” It’s like, well, not really – look at this history.
And that’s the case on almost any island you can think of. Anytime that you had people arriving on an island, horrible things happened; whether it was hiding things there, or exiling people there, or specifically in Ilha Grande, Brazil – this island – one of the largest slavery colonies in all of South America. So how can you negotiate between these different layers of history?
For the meaning of the film, it’s like you said: In the beginning, it’s colorful, and I did that purposely. I literally graded the film differently in the beginning to bring out green, and colors. And then that changes, and the light changes, and the storms come. You know, this atmospheric, impressionistic thing that we’re trying to do.
Yes, I was going to ask you about your work with your cinematographer because that does really come across.
To me, it’s kind of like the island had moods, and it was really alive, you know? So we made sure to film storms, and I even sent drones into the forests and into mists, really trying to capture that. Something that I thought was interesting is how landscape can embody or contain human emotion or human kinds of ideas, how just the landscape can say a lot. And trying to use that to get to some kind of more poetic idea about trauma, or about those kinds of scenes in the film. But doing it through just landscapes, doing it through rain, doing it through smoke, and trying to do it visually instead of just explicitly.
I also felt like you were doing it on a micro level, too, with filming the insects, and the more predatory bugs. That cannot be a coincidence.
Yes, totally! I always felt that the world of insects is a microcosm, especially on the island watching these little microsocieties. Those societies are micro, and the island is another layer, and then the world. So it becomes these little islands – they’re all connected. Also I always felt like [the insects] were somehow symbols of survival. An insect is almost indestructible, right? They’re the last things that will survive when the world comes to an end. To me the insects are also symbolic of survival and being able to evolve and adapt.
To me, it also speaks to the fact that we as humans try to pretend that we’re very enlightened, but we do predatory things. We do things for pure survival, as insects or animals do. We still have that animal nature.
Yes, the scene with the ants, and they’re marching, and the spider is eating things? These are things that we do to each other, right? It’s like these little worlds. I mean, you said it very well, but these micro things are happening, and I’m trying to connect them to the larger kind of things.
Getting to the supposed subject of the film, the title character, the Man of the Monkey: If I’m reading the film right, he at some point came into a society or an area where people don’t think of land ownership the same way that we might in our society, and just said, “This is mine now, and you have to keep off.” I was wondering if that was also meant to be a microcosm of that way that whole cultures can take over other cultures and exploit them and oppress them.
Yes, it’s again these contradictory ideas about home, and about place, and about territory. Some government office in Rio decided that the bank had a right to purchase this land. But who said that? Well, somebody decided that this is the marker. And for people that had been there for hundreds of years, they have no proof that they have been living there, apart from the fact that their ancestors lived there and told them that that was their home. It’s at the heart, I think, of so many different examples of two different types of cultures that are talking a different language. A westerner who comes in and basically is saying, “According to this document, this is my land.” But it’s like, we don’t really recognize this document as proof of ownership over this land. That’s been the history of many of the encroaching western powers – in the Amazon, in Latin America, and in various places where indigenous people have been completely ignored and exploited.
Here, too, obviously – Native Americans.
Of course, yeah, here as well, and it’s all using documents – law. But the law is only recognized if you agree to be part of that law. So it’s very complicated, and I think for me it was just interesting because in my family, in the way that I think of myself, I don’t think of myself as part of a nation, even though I have passports, and I’m a citizen of this country [the US]. I don’t… that concept to me seems very strange. When I really think about it, this idea of national identity is so artificial, and especially because I’m kind of a newcomer to this country. But I also lived in other countries where I felt like, “I have no allegiance to any country, actually.” I have allegiance to human things – to things that I believe are humanistic. You can identify with humanism and not have to choose. Often I think nationality leads to bad things. The idea of land and ownership and territories – all these things are just… they’re made up, right? We made them up.
And Jewish people, specifically, have always lived that way. You don’t know if this is always going to be your home, so you kind of live in a nomadic way. Part of the message that I wanted to express in the film is that maybe that’s OK. And that’s a question – I don’t have an answer – but I think maybe it’s OK not to belong. We always think we have to belong, but belonging also means that you’re placing yourself within a construct, and you’re also saying, “Well, now I’m an American, and I belong to this culture” and all that. That’s a limitation, and maybe that’s also part of the problem – I don’t know. So it made me think a lot about immigration. It made me think a lot about what it means to be an immigrant, and how you never really belong. And if it’s OK to belong to multiple places, then how do you negotiate that?Per the topic of land and displacement, I feel like it’s impossible to talk about that as Jews and not talk about Israel, and our role possibly displacing people. Was that something that resonated for you when you were making the film or that you’ve thought about?
I think for [my family] Israel was not – I mean, maybe for my grandmother it was different because she was a Holocaust survivor – but for us it was never really a question of nationalism. We had left, we had gone to Israel, we had left Israel again… Politically, I think none of us in the family really agrees with many of the things that are happening in Israel. So we don’t have that kind of nationalistic allegiance to any place, including Israel. So it’s not that Israel is any different. In some ways, my family found safety on an island more – even though that place ended up being not safe, too, in some ways. There was a prison, they were torturing political prisoners of another dictatorship. But essentially, we think of Jews going to Israel, and that’s the “safe haven.” Part of what I also thought about in the film – and I think it comes through – is that no place is really safe. Israel is not safe, either, because wherever there’s conflict, that’s a problem.
We tend to think of utopia as this place that exists, but more and more I think like maybe it’s just an idea. And the idea is important because it allows us to hopefully become better humans and to build a better society. But ultimately, every time we try to create a utopia, it turns into an inferno. It turns into a kind of place that ultimately is no utopia – and that’s been the case.
I mean, the United States is the same thing. We talked about the indigenous communities here. The American dream – the idea of the frontier and the idea of coming to the United States to escape religious discrimination – ultimately is at the expense of genocide. So every time we think of these ideas of utopia, they’re ultimately based on some kind of conflict. That’s again why I support this idea of non-nationalism. This idea of actually resisting nationalism and embracing other ideas – new ideas about place and new ideas about borders that aren’t physical.
It’s hard for me because I spend a lot of time in Israel, but I also don’t identify with Israel any more than I identify with the United States or Argentina or Brazil. They’re all just places where people that I love live. But I think my family really always emphasized that we never wanted to be around violence. We never wanted to be around dictatorships or fascism or any kind of violence.
My mom has talked to me a lot about that because her grandparents escaped Europe – escaped pogroms and the Holocaust – but she and her mother were still each raised with this fear that that could always happen here. Like, we might be safe here, but if someone decides to kill all the Jews again we gotta go. With that fear – and that readiness to move if necessary – also comes these accusations of not being real citizens or not being loyal.
Totally. Or not being a good Jew – or whatever. I totally understand that, and I think you end up being a little bit alone in that way. Like you end up being – not ostracized, but you’re in a space that is undefined. In this nebulous kind of space where other Jews might not see you as belonging. And then for some Jews you’re gonna always be too conservative; for others you’re gonna be too radical.
And what does it mean to just not know? Or to be in between? Or to just say, “Well, I believe in humanism”? I’m Jewish culturally, and the tradition is beautiful, and my family history is great, and I’m interested in that. But it’s like, what does it mean to just resist that a little bit? I think you said it. You end up being accused of being against something.
I guess what struck me most about the film are these questions about place – also the history of the island, and trauma. And we’re speaking so little about the Man of the Monkey himself!
Which is kind of what my hope was – that he could become metaphor, could become a kind of vehicle to discuss all these things.
Absolutely. I think it is really common for documentary filmmaker to start out thinking that they’re making one film and realize that they’re going to end up making a different film. When was that tipping point for you?
I think not until the end! Even today I’m still trying to process exactly what that was about. But I think that’s the beauty of art, and that’s the beauty of filmmaking. For me at least, filmmaking is a process where you change. Either you change, the place changes, the people around you change – but change happens. And if it doesn’t happen, then it’s not the kind of filmmaking that I like to be engaged with, because that’s what makes it alive. It makes it feel alive. Things actually happened. People were affected by things that happened during the making of the film, and I was affected by it, and I came out a different person. To me, that’s great.
So yes, even then we screened it for the first time, it was still something that I was thinking about. Like, “Well, what was this whole thing about? Why was I so obsessed with the Man of the Monkey?” I think often we find reasons to do things. We create excuses, or we find ways of avoiding something by following something else. And that “something else” allows us to safely engage with that thing that might be traumatic in a different way. I think that’s what it is. It’s like a search, like a journey. It is a kind of trajectory that allows for self-discovery, but it’s not like I’m asking those questions upfront. You have to discover them slowly and engage with them step by step. It’s almost like the Odyssey or something – in your quest to find something you actually discover that the meaning of it was the journey. You can’t find it. You can’t find the thing that you’re actually… That treasure that you think you’re going to find doesn’t actually exist, and you’ll always be searching for it. And until you realize what it’s about, you’re not getting it.
So I think I got it once I started talking about the film, and thinking about it, writing about it. Then it started to make sense. Like, “Oh, this is why I was so obsessed with the story, because it intersects with all the things that I was thinking about.” The Man of the Monkey as a character – even as a person – is really everything. His story was like my father’s story in some ways. He’s also somebody who was changing identities, changing nationalities, changing allegiance – the allegiance that he had with Germany, and then defecting, and still at the end not really knowing what he was.
And that’s kind of where I am, too. I don’t exactly know what I am or where I belong, but this person has found a way to do it, and my father found a way to do it in some ways. And Seu Julio, who was incarcerated, found a way to do it. All those ways were different approaches to dealing with trauma, dealing with these issues of identity. So yes, I think it started to make more sense way, way later – after.
It is interesting to me that at the end of the film you do increasingly come back to the Man of the Monkey and his story. It seems like there are almost two movies coming together in this movie. Probably more than that! But there’s the story of the people on this island and these questions of cultural trauma and preservation, but then there’s also this very specific story about this really interesting man. It must have been hard to integrate those onscreen. How did you even try to approach that?
So we thought about it when we were editing the film and when we were shooting it. We thought about it in terms of three different kinds of lines, or three different stories. There’s the story of the Man of the Monkey and finding him. Then there’s the story into my family’s past, and that line actually goes back in history. So while one story is moving forward in time, one story is moving back in time constantly. And every time something happened that was significant in the story of Man of the Monkey, it always triggered some kind of more reflexive moment that was about memory or history or my family’s story. Then there was the third story, which is the story of the island – the place and the people of the island. And then what I try to do is that every time something happened with Man of the Monkey, it triggers the other two lines of the story as well. So that starts making these connections between the three lines, between the three stories.
So ultimately I thought of this film as like a rhizome. Instead of starting in the beginning, you start in the center, and you start going out in every direction. But every time you go out, you make a connection to another point. So ultimately it’s like this web, and then the web has no end. It can continue forever. It doesn’t have an end. It’s a nonlinear thing. So it is all connected, but it’s so hard to talk about it. You have to see it; you have to feel it. How does this person who was incarcerated, who comes from a totally different background – how does that relate to me, or to the Man of the Monkey, or to my father, or to Jews?
And that’s the power of cinema. It allows us to see things in a very specific way, to make new connections. With language you can try to explain it, but it would be expository. I would have to explain why it’s connected instead of showing it – instead of using sounds, landscapes, the jungle, insects, whatever. So I think it’s a very powerful thing because you might not exactly understand it intellectually, but you feel it. To me, that’s much more interesting, actually. How can you feel something to understand it instead of thinking about it?
We were talking earlier about filmmaking being therapeutic. Did you feel that some of your intergenerational trauma was healed by this endeavor?
I think it’s more about acceptance. The acceptance leads to more freedom, or the feeling of freedom. So it’s not something heavy; it’s not something that’s weighing you down as much. It’s being OK with it. I think I just had to get over this thing in order to move on. To move on – to talk about other things as a filmmaker – I needed to just address it.
More of the problem is also just that I don’t identify politically with any country specifically. That’s a problem, both for fundraising and for support. For South American or Latin American organizations, I’m not Latin American enough. I’m American for them. It’s hard to find distribution. It’s like the film has the same problems that I have! The film, as an artifact – as something that needs to go out to the world – is having a hard time finding a home, too, because politically it’s not aligned. It’s in three different languages, and so it’s not even really all in English. So for an American audience – or even American distribution – it’s more complicated also because it’s not about anything that’s happening in America. But for a Brazilian audience, I’m not from there, and I’m not talking about the things that maybe politically they would want me to address. So it’s very complicated because of that.
It’s just funny how it kind of becomes this reflexive thing. The film that I was trying to make was about this idea of not belonging, and how hard it is to be in flux and to be in between borders. And then I find myself having the same problems in terms of finding a place for the film because it’s not topical directly. It engages with a lot of issues that are relevant and that are things that are happening right now around the world, but it’s not doing it in this topical, direct way. It doesn’t belong to any specific country. I was supported by some American organizations, but I had no luck getting anything from anything from anybody in other countries. Even though we shot in Brazil, and it was made in Brazil for Brazilians I’m a foreigner. So it’s interesting. As a filmmaker how do you identify with countries, or politically identify?