Brazil Documentary ‘The Territory’ Tackles Indigenous Rights & Environmentalism

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Early on in The Territory, Alex Pritz’s stunning and urgent documentary feature debut, 18-year-old Bitaté, the soon-to-be leader of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau tribe in the Brazilian Amazon, watches on his smartphone as then-presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro promises there “won’t be one more inch of Indigenous reserve.” Weeks later, we see eco-activist Neidinha Barreira, who Bitaté considers to be his second mother, cry at the news of Bolsonaro’s victory—a victory that gives carte blanche to the farmers and settlers who supported him to speed up the destruction of the forests surrounding not only the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau’s territory but those of other Indigenous communities.

From death threats to the murder of a member of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, the settlers won’t stop at anything from taking over. As Brazil’s Indigenous Affairs Agency turns a deaf ear to their complaints, Bitaté convinces the community elders that technology will be their best ally when it comes to combating these encroaching forces. Bitaté and his people begin to document and make public their struggle with video cameras, drones, and arrows.

The settlers and farmers see in these lands the same opportunities many white settlers did in the United States as they traveled westward. Pritz captures them in action, chopping down hundred-year-old trees, setting the forests on fire, and meeting to organize. One of them, Sergio, the leader of the Association of Rural Producers of San Benito, even references the American West in his arguments. “They don’t farm or create anything. They just live there,” he complains, as if living in your own land, your own home, were a crime.

It is that sense of entitlement that drives his actions and which the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau and dozens of Indigenous communities have been fighting against for over 500 years.

Winner of the Audience Choice Award in the category of World Cinema/Documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and distributed by National Geographic Documentary Films, The Territory joins a growing list of films about—and made with the collaboration of—Latin America’s Indigenous communities, films which include Maya Da-Rin’s The Fever (2019) and Luiz Bolognese’s Ex-Shaman (2018) and The Last Forest (2021).

Like Bolognese with the Yanomami in The Last Forest, Pritz was adamant that the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau play a significant role in the making of this documentary, a decision that paid with dividends as the tribe was forced to prohibit the entrance of outsiders to their community as COVID was ravaging the country halfway through its production. In fact, Pritz shares cinematography credit with a member of the community, Tangãi Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau.

I recently spoke separately with Pritz; producer Gabriel Uceda, a Brazilian reporter who has been covering this community since 2016; and executive producer and activist Txai Suruí, who spoke in Brazilian Portuguese through an interpreter. We discussed the film, of course, as well as the role media literacy plays in helping these Indigenous communities get their story out. We also talked about the upcoming presidential election in Brazil.

After opening in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Austin, Vancouver, and Toronto last weekend, the film expands nationwide on Friday, August 26. For information on venues screening the film, visit The Territory’s official page.

The interviews were shortened and edited for clarity:

Director Alex Pritz. (Courtesy of Alex Pritz)

How did your work as a cinematographer help you prepare for the challenges and complexities of directing a feature film documentary?

Alex Pritz: In documentary filmmaking, and especially in present-tense filmmaking where you have to be there in the moment as things are happening, the cinematographer has to make a lot of directorial decisions: where they choose to point the camera in any given moment, how they choose to move the camera. That’s what editors then have to work with. And so you are that initial gateway, that conduit. As that kind of first sponge for the outside world coming in, I think you’re doing a lot of directing in those moments.

I have been lucky to work with some really talented directors as well, who I have learned a lot from over the years. 

You share cinematography credits with Tangãi Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, a member of the community. How did you coordinate what to shoot and what not to shoot with him, especially when you were not able to be physically present due to COVID?

Pritz: Tangãi, Bitaté, and the younger generation really understood media and the power of media in a way that the elders in the community didn’t. And that was part of Bitaté’s leadership: as the president of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau that he was able to bring media and technology into the equation. If you could show up with photos or video, it meant more than showing up with a verbal account of something coming from an oral storytelling tradition.

So when COVID happened and we were barred from entering Indigenous territory, we had to make some decisions about whether we were done filming, whether there was still something left to film, and whether we should wait until the pandemic was over and we could go back into the territory. And the answer from Bitaté and everybody else was: “No, we’re not done. We have a lot left to do. Bring us more cameras. Bring us better audio equipment. Help us understand how to use them, and we will shoot and produce and manage footage for the rest of the film from our perspective.”

And so for over a year, the community was filming and documenting their daily lives, their surveillance missions to protect their land. That just happened really organically.

How did you go about earning their trust in order to make this film?

Pritz: That was a long and slow process, and I think I’m still working to earn it every day. There was a lot of skepticism and suspicion and distrust, and rightly so because so much had been taken from this community by people who looked like me. And so it was a really long, slow process of explaining what film is and what my intentions were for it, what I hoped it was able to achieve—but also what the downside of being involved in a film is, what’s the cost of participation in a documentary film. We’re going to be around with cameras, there’s very little privacy, it’s a long term commitment. And not all films blow up in the way that ours has and strike a really important cultural nerve.

So you know, we had to have all those conversations over months and months with the community. Gabriel was an absolutely critical part of that whole process—he lives in the Amazon and is very close to them.

‘The Territory’ producer Gabriel Uchida. (Courtesy of Gabriel Uchida)

Gabriel Uceda: I’ve been living in and working with Indigenous peoples in the Amazon since 2016, and the way they see things, the way they understand things is different from ours.

They’re probably the most pressured Indigenous territory in Brazil. There is deforestation all around and fires every year. They’re also used to journalists going there or talking to them.

But with Alex, even though he’s American and in the beginning didn’t speak any Portuguese, they managed to create a different connection, because he was much more about learning and listening, to hearing from them—being very observational about their whole life and process. Alex was a person that they could trust.

So it was not hard. It was not hard to get this very intimate access to their lives.

As filmmakers, how important is media literacy?

Pritz: The power of stories to influence politics… the narrative informs the way that we engage with the world, the way that we perceive other groups of people that we’ve never met. It can also be this really powerful tool for empathy. It can be used in good ways and bad, as we’ve seen with Cambridge Analytica, and, you know, all the different ways that stories and news are being manipulated these days.

And so having that power of storytelling and narrative autonomy rest with these groups who have been marginalized and stereotyped is really important for me. It’s part of our impact campaign that we’re working with after the film. We’re building a multimedia center with the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, in their territory. It’s gonna have editing stations, equipment storage for better cameras, a podcast studio.

We are working towards fellowships and training opportunities between different Indigenous communities. I think the future of this type of work is Indigenous people creating their own stories about themselves for themselves.

Gabriel: It was their idea to start using the camera, especially for the surveillance missions. So a few years before we even started thinking about the film, they were already using cameras, but at that time, it was very like the initial stage for them. They had small cameras, only a few batteries, only a few memory cards.

So with the film, they understood that they could learn from us how to use other equipment. But also we learned so much from them, because we were sharing knowledge on both sides, like the way they move around the forest, the way they carry the camera, their perspective, their points of view, the things that they choose to film or not. It was also an amazing learning process for us.

We were able to bring new and modern equipment for them that they’re using not only to protect the territory, but also now to protect their culture and history because lots of their stories and traditions are fading away, because they’re such a small group. So it’s really, really important to have them by our side, carrying the cameras and being, like, behind the cameras as well—not only to learn from them, but also to bring their perspective to the film. 

‘The Territory’ executive producer Txai Suruí. (Gabriel Uchida)

Txai, as somebody new to filmmaking, how would you describe your experience as an executive producer and as one of many people in the community who used a camera?

Txai Suruí: The narrative for a long time was controlled by the colonizer—our image of who we are, our story. But now we use drones, we use GPS, we use social media as a weapon, as a way to protect our territory.

But it’s also an important tool to preserve our culture. We can tell our own story about who we are.

People think that Indigenous people are one conglomerate, one monolith. There are over 200 Indigenous languages. There is a lot of cultural diversity, and people don’t know that.

It’s funny. I am always wearing my headdress because I am proud of who I am. I am proud of being Indigenous, [so when we] we go to the festivals, people who haven’t seen the film look at me, see my Indigenous nose, my eyes, and what’s the first thing that they think… that I must be in the film. But I am actually in the film maybe twice. There’s a shot of me, but it’s only my back. I tell them that I am not in the film, that I am an executive producer, and they are shocked to know that I am an executive producer.

Big films, like The Territory turned out to be, there are not many of them about Indigenous people and definitely not made by Indigenous people where we tell our own story, what is actually happening. Look, this is real life, and it’s going to keep on happening even after the final credits roll. We’ve been able to get this story to a hundred countries, all four corners of the world, and in many of these festivals I was the only Indigenous person attending. There weren’t people from other Indigenous communities.

This is something that the industry needs to reflect on. Indigenous people need to be at these events so we can tell our own stories, share our own perspectives, our ideas about the world.

The film opens a couple of days before Brazil’s presidential election on October 2. What do you expect people in Brazil to take from the film? And w are your own personal expectations for the elections? 

Gabriel: We are working hard to make sure that the biggest, widest audience watches the film in Brazil, because we understand this is a very challenging moment for Brazilians.

At least Brazilian society is more aware of Indigenous issues in Brazil. there’s this very recent movement about Brazilians understanding how important the Indigenous struggle is for Brazil and for the whole world. Unfortunately, it’s very late, but Brazilian society is understanding that this is a plural society, that they are also Brazilians.

We are working very hard to bring as many people to the cinemas as possible.

Pritz: From my point of view, the issues affecting the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau are not new—they’ve been around since the Portuguese arrived 500 years ago. This idea of land theft, violence, environmental destruction—none of this is even remotely new to them. And so I don’t think, even if Bolsonaro loses, we can expect their problems to go away.

I hope that the level of concern the international community has around Indigenous rights and the preservation of the Amazon rainforest can continue, no matter who’s in office, come January 1, 2023. The climate isn’t going anywhere—these Indigenous communities aren’t going anywhere. And it would be foolish and short-sighted to think that one election can change the whole situation.

Txai: Brazil’s never been a good place for Indigenous people, and that’s the plain truth. People talk about deforestation—that it’s about cutting down trees—but they don’t understand that they are killing us, that this involves a whole territorial fight. And the film shows this in images, and that’s why it touches people’s hearts. It really helps raise awareness because we are people, we are human, we have families. We have a connection with the rainforest, and we understood the importance of that connection—and we have been understanding that for thousands of years.

And, you know, beyond reflection we need change. We’ve known there’s been destruction for a long time, and the problem is that we are not doing anything about it. So we want this film to shock people enough to move them into action. Because the film itself really shows how important our leaders are, the people who represent us. It also shows us the consequences of leaders who turn their back, who actually attack us, attack the environment. We debut the film so that we could move the needle for the elections, because this is a watershed moment for our leaders, for Brazil, and we know that and we had to do something about it and are doing something about it.

The Indigenous movement is actually supporting a wide roster of Indigenous candidates, because it is not enough to change a president—we have to change what’s happening at the congressional level, because a lot of our suffering is at the hands of Congress. And so we are trying to get people who actually represent us, who support Indigenous causes, who think differently and therefore can bring new solutions, can provide that Indigenous gaze.

 

Featured image: Bitaté Uru-eu-wau-wau and members of the Jupaú Surveillance team patrol the river by boat. (Alex Pritz/Amazon Land Documentary)

Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, Alejandro has been active in Latino media since 1988 when he and a group of 12 independent producers launched Orgullo Latino, a weekly newsmagazine series in the Chicago Access Network. Alejandro joined ¡Exito!, the Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language weekly, as a freelance reporter in 1993, where he wrote about entertainment and culture with the occasional foray into politics. He was also a frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune’s Tempo, Arts & Entertainment and Friday sections. Part of the transition team that replaced ¡Exito! with Hoy, and in 2004 he became Senior Editor for all three editions of Hoy (New York, Chicago and LA). He currently is a freelance writer, editor and media relations specialist in Chicago.

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