The violent claw of colonization continues to raze Indigenous land well into the 21st century, a point made startlingly clear in Alex Pritz’s urgent documentary The Territory. Though the fight against climate change and genocide has been a lifelong effort amid various Indigenous groups around the globe, this lean, visually striking film focuses on the the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau people, living in a verdant expanse in the Brazilian Amazon that sees its once vast perimeter shrinking exponentially each day.
There are a multitude of insidious factors leading to the staggering loss of this particular swath of Indigenous land: Illegal land-grabs, capitalist industrial expansion, baseless prejudices against Indigenous people among the larger Brazilian population and, most critically, the rise of the far-right after the 2019 election of president Jair Bolsonaro. While the documentary contains several moments of soul-crushing despair—from activist assassinations to the senseless depletion of one of the world’s most precious natural resources—it always presents the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau as a group that will forever adapt to the ongoing struggle, taking up filmmaking in their own right to record the violation of their land by intruders.
In an act that subverts the colonial roots of the director/subject divide in documentary filmmaking, Pritz shares cinematography credit with several Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau individuals, ensuring that their perspective is authentically represented. As opposed to films that milk the injustices of a marginalized group for bleeding-heart liberals at home, The Territory allows the oppressed to share snippets that they capture of their own everyday existence. Unsurprisingly, their livelihoods are not one-note wells of trauma: The youth conduct breath-holding contests in the river, play with a gorgeous pet parrot and grin while applying ritualistic (and striking) streaks of black dye to their torsos before a hunt.
“I believe that the Amazon is not just the heart of Brazil, but the whole world,” says Bitaté, an 18-year-old who is suddenly chosen by elders as the new leader of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau. The newfound leader later goes on to morph this statement into a viable form of direct action. With a digital camera gifted by Pritz, Bitaté launches an expansive media campaign to effectively keep a physical log of harassment and intrusion from outsiders that the government either ignores or simply says is “made up.” These visual documents give credence to the claims of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, while also serving to spread their message to a larger audience outside of their intimate community.
Though the population of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau once totaled in the thousands, a title card reveals that less than 200 are alive today. This loss is staggering, particularly when it’s revealed that “first contact” was only established with these Indigenous people in the 1980s. The rapidly dwindling number of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau mirrors that of the Amazon’s rampant deforestation. After all, the large-scale industrial agriculture that has inflicted so much harm on the ecosystem didn’t really start to ramp up until the 1970s—meaning that making “contact” with the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau was likely a byproduct of rabid capitalist expansion.
Clearing wide areas for cattle ranching, an industry rife with overarching environmental repercussions, is one of the major contributing factors to the destruction of the Amazon. In depleting the rainforest often dubbed “the world’s lungs” while simultaneously bolstering an industry with immense ecological consequences, Brazil (particularly under Bolsonaro’s anti-Indigenous leadership) aids in the acceleration of climate change on a global scale.
“As the Bible says, people are allowed to take the land and multiply,” quips one such Brazilian cattle rancher and member of the Association of Rio Bonito, an organization that challenges Indigenous land rights (and likely resorts to acts of chilling violence to preserve its tyrannical power over land that is not theirs). “This is how Brazil was created,” he proudly says, constructing a villa for his family that sits on stolen territory. Though the testimony of these reprehensible individualists is enraging, Pritz’s access to these cagey, dangerous vigilante groups is impressive—and his framing of their wanton destruction only solidifies audience alignment with the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau people.
“These are old problems that have gotten much worse now,” says Neidinha Bandeira, whose activist involvement with the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau has spanned over 30 years. She often drops what she’s doing whenever she gets concerning calls from Ari, an Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau man in his 30s whom she’s known since the day he was born, who lets her know whenever he spots illegal loggers encroaching on Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau land. Knowing that the Indigenous Affairs industry is “like shit in the water,” she increasingly finds herself taking matters into her own hands. Acting as one of their only allies on the outside, Bandeira regularly accompanies the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau to confront these invaders. Understanding that these sketchy groups are capable of horrific violence (the family already receives recurring death threats), Bandeira’s daughter is left to fret anxiously over the fate of her mother anytime she goes to stand with the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau. “I’m not scared of anything,” Bandeira declares during a post-dinner conversation with her daughter. “I’m only scared they’ll do something to my kids. But I’m not afraid of loggers or land-grabbers or jaguars.” Sternly, her daughter replies, “But you should be.”
There is plenty of upsetting evidence concerning humanity’s vile indifference to ecological disaster and genocide in The Territory, but there is just as much hope for the future, even if all we have is a meager fighting chance. Alongside interviews with hostile ranches, drone shots capturing miles of decimated rainforest and bleak news footage of violent crime against the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, Pritz is also able to capture the enduring beauty of the Amazon, all while being careful not to drown out the severity of the issues explored with a non-stop barrage of natural splendor. Entrancing shots of exotic bugs demonstrate that even when things are overwhelmingly fucked up on a macro level, vibrant life continues to thrive in front of our faces. It’s on us to protect the land and resources necessary for its cultivation.
Director: Alex Pritz
Release Date: August 19, 2022
Natalia Keogan is Filmmaker Magazine’s web editor, and regularly contributes freelance film reviews here at Paste. Her writing has also appeared in Blood Knife Magazine, SlashFilm and Daily Grindhouse, among others. She lives in Queens with her large orange cat. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan