Sundance Doc ‘The Territory’ Shines Light On Alarming Deforestation Of “Protected” Land In Brazil’s Rainforest: “It’s A Nightmare”

In the battle to protect their territory in the Amazon rainforest, the indigenous Uru-eu-wau-wau people really only have one significant weapon in their arsenal: media attention. Without it, landgrabbers will keep penetrating further into their land in the Brazilian state of Rondônia.

The Territory, which just made its world premiere at Sundance, ups the media attention on the Uru-eu-wau-wau and their struggle to a dramatically new level. Shot over a period of several years in collaboration with the Uru-eu-wau-wau, it explores not only what is at stake for the indigenous group but for humanity in general.

“The Uru-eu-wau-wau indigenous territory is important for the whole planet,” says Neidinha Suruí, a defender of the Uru-eu-wau-wau who is one of the main characters in the documentary. “Because of its nature and biodiversity and because it’s fighting climate change… it’s super important.”

Bitaté (right) and other protectors of the Brazilian rainforest in The Territory

There are fewer than 190 of the Uru-eu-wau-wau in existence. They are outmanned and outgunned by armed invaders engaged in burning down great swaths of the rainforest for mining, logging, clearing land for cattle and homesteading. The Uru-eu-wau-wau cause got a welcome boost today with the news, reported by Deadline, that National Geographic has acquired The Territory for distribution, guaranteeing a much bigger platform for the Uru story.

“We are honored to bring the story of the Uru-eu-wau-wau people to the world,” noted Carolyn Bernstein, executive vice president of global scripted content and documentary films for National Geographic, “and help further the conversation and raise awareness around the endangered Amazon rainforest and its indigenous people.”

Bernstein also praised the work of Alex Pritz, who makes his directorial debut with The Territory. Other filmmakers have entered the Amazon rainforest before him and applied a sort of colonial gaze upon the situation. Pritz tells Deadline it was critical to him that the Uru-eu-wau-wau be centrally involved in making The Territory.

“It had to feel good every step of the way to everybody involved,” Pritz tells Deadline, “or it wasn’t worth doing at all.”

Before the early 1980s, the Uru-eu-wau-wau lived their lives without any contact with the Brazilian government. Explaining the concept of a documentary film, therefore, to community elders who had no frame of reference for such a thing, presented a challenge.

“The idea of advocacy and news media, journalism, a lot of these things were really quite foreign,” Pritz recalls. “And the idea that somebody would follow you around with a camera for a couple of years was like, ‘OK, but what does that mean, really? And then what’s the point of it?’ We really felt in order to proceed with the process of informed consent with this community, we had to open up our toolkit and explain and show and teach and share what film meant to us.”

Pritz says younger members of the Uru, like 18-year-old Bitaté, intuitively understood the idea.

“They kind of came to the elders,” Pritz explains, “and said, ‘Look, we really think this film is going to be an exciting and important thing. Let’s do it.’”

Bitaté operates a drone
Bitaté Uru Eu Wau Wau drives a drone during a course for indigenous people. Porto Velho, Brazil, September 12, 2021
Fernando Souza/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

In short order, Bitaté was operating a drone camera, documenting incursions by non-indigenous Brazilians hungry for their land. After the outbreak of Covid, filmmakers feared spreading the coronavirus to the Uru, so they supplied them with camera equipment allowing the Uru to do filming themselves.

“The media is a huge tool,” Pritz observes, “and I’m excited that they’ve been picking it up for themselves… We see this film as the beginning of a much larger collaboration between media and this community.”

Pritz and his team also filmed with settlers — the ones clearing land that doesn’t belong to them, acre after acre. That was at the insistence of the Uru-eu-wau-wau.

“They really pushed us,” Pritz remembers, “and said, ‘Look, if you want to understand this story in a different way or shed some light on the situation more generally, talk to people on the other side who are the ones invading us.’”

Pritz says many Brazilian settlers are influenced by narratives that come from American Westerns.

“They see themselves as the heroes of this story. They are the virtuous pioneers that are creating something out of nothing, in their minds,” he observes. “Obviously, the rainforest is not nothing and it’s home to people and animals and all sorts of things. But they’re following this tired Western colonial story that land is nothing, it is a blank slate until it is found, demarcated along these Cartesian coordinates and turned into private property, and only then does it become something. And they see themselves as the first step in that creation of private property.”

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro in Brasilia, Brazil Oct. 22, 2020
AP Photo/Eraldo Peres

President Jair Bolsonaro, often compared to Donald Trump, has openly expressed hostility to the interests of indigenous peoples and has blessed the deforestation of huge tracts of the Amazon.

“These invaders and farmers, most of them, they feel very supported and empowered by the current government in Brazil, the current president,” notes the film’s Brazilian producer, Gabriel Uchida. “So, they were just fine with showing us illegal stuff that they were doing.”

The land of the Uru-eu-wau-wau and other indigenous groups is protected under the Brazilian constitution. On paper.

“There’s no law enforcement there,” Uchida says. “In one of the scenes of the film Neidinha and activists go to the guy who works for the federal agency and he says something like, ‘What should I do? Go there and fight the invaders? I can do nothing.’ Year by year, there are just more and more invaders. Nowadays, it’s a nightmare because honestly, there’s not one single week that we have peace.”

Neidinha Suruí grew up in the rainforest, her father a rubber tapper at a time before the Uru-eu-wau-wau land came under federal protection. As a prominent defender of Uru-eu-wau-wau interests, her life has been threatened by those who want to take control of Uru land. Deadline spoke with her from her home in Brazil, which she has been compelled to turn into a defensive structure.

“It’s like a fortress, high, high walls and CCTV,” Suruí notes, “and I had to make it that way because of this genocide agenda that is affecting human rights activists and environmental activists in Brazil.”

Bolsonaro is running for reelection later this year. Suruí makes it clear what she thinks about the right-wing politician.

Logging in Brazil's Amazon rainforest
Logs are stacked at a lumber mill surrounded by recently charred and deforested fields near Porto Velho, Rondônia state, Brazil, September 2, 2019
AP Photo/Andre Penner

“His speeches, his agenda and also his supporters — they’re supporting deforestation and the death of animals… and also the death of indigenous peoples,” she says. “It is a tragedy for the whole world, not only for Brazil. He’s promoting hate, not love. He’s promoting illegal activities. It’s terrible to talk about it… I can tell you that I love horror movies. But not a single horror movie would be worse than Bolsonaro’s axe to the forest… I consider him the worst nightmare for the Amazon.”

Spectacular photography in The Territory helps reveal the hidden life of the rainforest, and all that is lost when outsiders set fire to it.

“I really wanted visually to be able to move between the big and the small, because this story is about the climate and about the planet and these really huge forces, the rise of populist authoritarianism and these huge themes — manifest destiny,” Pritz comments. “But it’s also about the individual characters… and we wanted to make a film that was able to move between the macro level forces and the micro level people and regional conflicts that encapsulates it. Trying to build a visual language where we can move between satellite imagery of the continent where you see, over 30 years, how many trees have been lost and what this really looks like and then go all the way down to like one caterpillar and really just focus on that.”

Suruí helps sum up the purpose of The Territory.

I hope people can realize how dangerous it is to lose the rainforest and the risks that indigenous peoples and activists are facing here,” she says. “I hope they understand that this fight is to save the forests and the planet.”

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