Opa + Me

Producer Karina Manashil weaves together her family history and her deep love of the nature documentary series Kingdom of the Apes.

When I started to think about art I love and what is interesting about what moves me, I felt like Alice in Wonderland, exploring bottles and biscuits with varying tags and promises. If I focus on the here and now, I could easily go down an anime rabbit hole of how the latest season of Attack on Titan is reminiscent of Tsugumi Ohba playing with audience expectations in Death Note. I could talk about catching up start to finish on over 1000 episodes of One Piece (note: having a new baby is key for this journey) or how it feels to move from child to parent alongside Naruto, from his own series to Boruto. But when I think about one piece of work that never left me, a genre in which every fact commits to memory, what comes clearly into focus is animal documentaries and particularly the second episode of Kingdom of the Apes titled “Brother Against Brother.”

To explain, my obsession with this field – and why I made a layered Instagram photo in 2017 of my then-favorite documentaries, tagged #munyat – has everything to do with my family background. I am three-quarters Iraqi, one-quarter Iranian, fully Jewish and first-generation American. My father was born in Tehran, Iran, and my mother in Jakarta, Indonesia. My maternal Indonesian background is the subject of our story: my mom’s dad, my “Opa,” was born in Indonesia and descended from a small lineage of Iraqi Jews living there. We know his mother was born there in a tiny village near Lake Toba (her name, too, was “Toba”), but we are not certain when our family first arrived. Opa resembled John Wayne – he was tall and muscular, had a Clark Gable-style mustache and always had his hunting rifle nearby the kitchen table. Growing up, I heard many romantic (and tragic) stories of his upbringing that shaped him into the magnanimous, self-described Lone Ranger I knew.

Karina Manashil’s grandfather on his wedding day.

During World War II, Japan set up internment camps in Indonesia (then a Dutch colony), and my grandfather and his whole family were forced to live in them. As a child, I heard very Opa stories of how he chose to labor with the men, even though he was young enough to stay with the women, because he was tired of seeing large, naked female bodies. And I was told the story of how my great-grandmother and half of her children were put before a firing squad when the man controlling the line happened to ask her name. “Toba,” she replied. “You cannot be Toba,” he answered. “Toba is the name of the lake in my home.” When she said, “I am from there,” he replied, “If you are from there, then you are my sister, and these are my nieces and nephews. None of you can die.” He then waved away the guns and sent them back to the camps. And just like that, an eighth of my family lived on.

My grandfather and his family had to restart life after the camps with nothing but each other. Half of his siblings took an invitation from Australia to sail there and begin anew. But Opa decided to hustle at home. He started by selling cigarettes and with his physicality would join babirusa (Indonesian boar) hunts with the locals. He began taking ministers and generals on the hunts and created a circle that eventually led to him building the first skyscrapers in Jakarta.

Opa and Karina.

In his new life as a bachelor, Opa took in a baby elephant who liked to sit on people’s laps, so he would keep a pitchfork handy to spare his guests’ legs. He found a baby leopard on the brink of death, whom he named “Cleopatra,” and raised her from a cub. He told incredible stories of inviting women for dinner, without telling them of his housemate. One woman sat down at the dining table, feeling what she thought was a rug between her toes. “Wow, I have never felt a carpet so soft,” she said. Opa, ever the rascal, said nothing. The woman looked under the table, and as Opa grabbed Cleopatra, he saw a stream of pee leak through her chair. She quickly got up and ran out of the house.

Growing up, these stories colored my world. I loved the orangutan who drank beer with the construction workers on their smoke breaks and the peacocks who chased my mother and her friends to the guest house. I vividly remember our sleepovers with my grandparents: my sister and I would rush to Opa’s closet to pick one of a line of VHS animal documentaries for us all to watch in bed together. These engrained, wild stories led to my fascination with the “Brother Against Brother” episode of Kingdom of the Apes.

An image from the “Brother vs. Brother” episode of Kingdom of the Apes.

This program tells a story of Shakespearean proportions. It takes place in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park and follows a clan of chimpanzees led by a just and tactical leader, Freud. He is in his prime and leads his group with authority, respect and tact. His brother, Frodo, definitively the largest and strongest of the chimps, but lacking his brother’s charisma, decides to challenge Freud for rule. The series of strategy-versus-brute-strength battles comes to a climax when Freud gets a disease that strips him of his hair and sends him to the bottom of the hierarchy. Frodo finally takes his place as king, but his rule is short-lived when he gets the same disease and falls to his brother’s side. Through misfortune, the two obtain a state they have not experienced since childhood – true, equal, unchanging camaraderie.

The link between a man among men and the king of the apes then becomes finding true contentment in family. Opa was an alpha in every sense of the word, but it is clear that one of his greatest pleasures was calling me “munyat” – and his mischievous grin could not have been bigger than when I was red-faced to learn it meant “monkey.” I feel I have been blessed with a circumstance that is reserved for those of the first generation. I am close enough to my history to be defined by it, and am a native of this country who has been accepted by it. My sense of self is then the given life of wearing the badge of Freud and Frodo and Cleopatra and the magic of Lake Toba, and what that means. And my gift is to carry these stories forth to the next generation, and so on.

Karina Manashil is the president of Mad Solar, having begun her career in the mailroom at William Morris Endeavor, where she became a talent agent. Manashil represented notable clients including Scott Mescudi, known by his stage name, Kid Cudi, and built her career taking talent into new arenas. In 2020, she partnered with Mescudi and Dennis Cummings to launch Mad Solar, which is backed by BRON Studios. The first production released under the banner was the Amazon documentary, A Man Named Scott, from director Robert Alexander. Manashil then went on to executive produce SXSW fan-favorite X, along with its prequel, Pearl, and the recently announced sequel, MaXXXine. All three films are directed by Ti West and distributed by A24. Manashil is an executive producer on the critically acclaimed Netflix animated series directed by Fletcher Moules, Entergalactic, which was released alongside its album of the same name from Kid Cudi on September 30th. Manashil is a native of Los Angeles and graduated from Chapman University with a BFA in Film Production.