‘The Man of the Monkey’ Examines Diaspora

David Romberg explores Ilha Grande in “The Man of the Monkey.” Courtesy of David Romberg

David Romberg knows many North American Jews are unfamiliar with the stories of the Latin America diaspora.

As a high school student in the United States, his classmates didn’t understand how he could be Jewish, speak Spanish and trace his roots to Argentina. 

“There’s a whole kind of narrative that’s missing,” he said. 

His new documentary, “The Man of the Monkey,” sheds light on Latin American Jewish history through the story of Romberg’s family, a remote island, a local legend and a brutal regime. 

Romberg, assistant professor of film studies media and communications at Muhlenberg College, spent part of his childhood living on Ilha Grande, an island off the coast of Brazil. His father built their house in the 1970s as a refuge after he escaped from the military dictatorship in Argentina, also known as the Dirty War. He was not the only person in the family forced to flee violence: Romberg’s grandfather escaped Russian pogroms, and his grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. 

The film follows Romberg as he attempts to learn the origins of a story his father told him when he was a small boy: The man of the monkey is said to live in isolation in the forest with a monkey for a wife, and the animal attacks anyone who ventures near, especially women. The tale stays with Romberg into adulthood and he decides to interview other islanders about their knowledge of the legend.

As Romberg contacts more and more people, stories about a man with a monkey for a wife evolve into mentions of a white man with a monkey on his shoulder. These eventually morph into anecdotes about run-ins with an Austrian or German man who intimidates locals near his home with firearms and dogs. 

More questions arise as it becomes clear that the man of the monkey is a real person who arrived on the island after World War II and earned a fearsome reputation: Is he a former Nazi who fled to South America to escape prosecution for war crimes? Is he working to displace locals from their land under the guise of environmental conservation? Was he involved in the Brazilian dictatorship that led to the disappearance and imprisonment of political dissidents on the very island where Romberg and his Jewish family lived?

While Romberg searches for answers, he begins to learn disturbing truths about the place he called home for so many years, as well as stories about the generational trauma of Jews living in the Latin American diaspora.

“The Man of the Monkey” took 10 years to film and more than 10 years to research. Romberg contacted multiple Jewish organizations that collected information about escaped Nazis and war criminals, and combed through records and passports from different countries. Although the film is full of interviews from locals that help flesh out the identity of the mysterious figure, Romberg said he constantly ran into dead ends as he tried to pin down
his identity. 

As Romberg realized that his father built their family home on an island where political dissidents were tortured and a potential war criminal terrorized locals, he questioned whether true refuge is even possible.

“A lot of that came from trying to understand what the idea of refuge was as a concept for the Jewish diaspora, but specifically for the Latin American-Jewish diaspora, which experienced various traumas, even after the war, once they came to South America, which had various dictatorships,” Romberg said.  

He said many Holocaust survivors escaped to Latin American countries, only to find that Nazis and their collaborators fled prosecution and settled in the same places. In addition to the proximity of former tormentors, new dictatorships during the 1960s and ’70s threatened Jewish  lives and livelihoods. Some of Romberg’s own family members disappeared during the Argentinian dictatorship, and many Jews were among the intellectuals, students and artists who were targeted. 

“For me, it was important to trace that history,” he said. 

Romberg’s understanding of refuge also shapes his understanding of nationality and belonging. He lives in the United States and many of his family members, including his Holocaust survivor grandmother, live in Israel. While they love their home countries, their history of constant displacement means feelings of safety and belonging are elusive. 

“For Jews specifically, it’s an interesting problem, because we have been moving from continent to continent, from place to place, for so long that one wants to think that there is a place that you end up at,” he said. “From my experience, I’m not sure that’s true, because even now, even though I think of the United States as my home, I don’t culturally necessarily identify completely with the United States.”

“The Man of the Monkey” is available to screen virtually from the Miami Jewish Film Festival until April 29.

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