Starring Neidhinha Bandeira and Bitaté Uru Eu Wau Wau. Directed by Alex Pritz.
Director Alex Pritz reveals the meat of his first feature documentary, The Territory, through a series of small, skillfully introduced viewer epiphanies.
The film—about the existential crises afflicting the remnants of a remote group of Indigenous people, the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, in western Brazil—starts slowly, introducing watchers to the many threats closing in on the 180 or so inhabitants of six tiny villages in an official, “protected” Indigenous territory.
Land grabbers, farmers, illegal roads and trails, loggers, ranchers, and purposely set fires are constantly eating away at the borders of the 7,000-square-mile territory they share with two other small goups of Indigenous inhabitants, most of whom hadn’t seen a white person before first contact in the early 1980s.
Local officials with the Indigenous Affairs agency, tasked with protecting the territory’s inhabitants and land, are heard on the phone, protesting that they can “do nothing” about the repeated illegal violations of sovereignty, even going so far as to claim that the stories are “made up”.
A brave and indefatigable environmental activist, Neidinha Bandeira, has worked with the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau for decades and considers herself almost a mother to some of their children who are now young adults, especially Bitaté, a personable and intelligent young man who has just been made leader by the villages’ elders.
For all that Neidinha tells the camera about regularly receiving death threats from within the nearby community where she lives with her daughter, it doesn’t hit home until we later see her receive such a call while on-camera. Though she bravely assumes that the hysterical female voice identifying herself as her daughter is a trick—despite her claims to have been kidnapped by men with guns—she panics and races home when a follow-up call to her daughter isn’t answered.
The tension of that short, agonizing drive home conveys more than an hour of terrifying testimony could impart. And a subsequent, sorrowful discovery along one of the roads used to patrol Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau territory for “invaders” drives home the reality of the black dread now starting to inch up viewers’ spines.
Similarly, it isn’t until well into the film, when we are shown a map graphic of the Indigenous territory like “an island of rainforest surrounded by farms”, clearcut deserts, and a growing network of roads and illegal property borders that the scale of the looming destruction becomes clear.
The 2022 film had its debut at Sundance earlier this year, and it grabbed people’s attention, winning both the audience award for world cinema (documentary) and the special jury award for documentary craft. Then Pritz nabbed the Golden Space Needle Award at the recent Seattle International Film Festival, where it was also nominated for the grand jury prize. (Vancouverites will get a chance to see it soon at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival.)
The international coproduction (Brazil, U.S., Denmark) has a bushel of producers attached to its coattails, none more prominent than filmmaker Darren Aronofsky. Besides directing, Pritz co-edited and helped shoot the three-year project, which also saw a major technical contribution from its main subjects, the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau themselves, when the COVID-19 pandemic caused them to close their Indigenous Territory’s borders after they quickly lost about five percent of their population.
Their swift adoption and facility in the use of drones, video cameras, cell phones, GPS devices, and motorcycles to increase surveillance patrols and to document proof of the invasions (villagers “arrested” those they found with chainsaws and pestcides and turned them over to authorities) not only helped amass incontrovertible evidence to bolster their claims but also provided invaluable footage for Pritz via Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau videographer Tangãi, who received cinematography co-credit with the director.
That all of this—including the local establishment of a regional association of would-be farmers illegally staking out enough Indigenous land “for 1,000 families”—is unreeling against a backdrop of populist authoritarian Jair Bolsonaro’s ultimately successful drive to become president of Brazil in 2018 makes optimistic thoughts a challenge.
But if the intent of the filmmakers was to help stir international support for both the increasingly threatened Amazon rainforest and its besieged Indigenous inhabitants, consider it mission accomplished, despite the documentary’s unsettled and somewhat foreboding ending.
Neidinha’s brave statement near the close of the film, however, provides a measure of hope in its sheer defiance: “There’s lots I still want to do,” the activist, 57, says over a gorgeous shot of her drifting on her back in a stream through a green cathedral during a rain shower, “and I know I don’t have much time left.
“But in the time I have, I will mess with a lot of people. Poor them. If I live another 20 years, it’ll be 20 years spent bothering anyone who destroys the Amazon.”