In the Amazon, Political Power Grows Out of the Barrel of a Camera Lens

Image by Ivars Utināns.

The Territory is a real life, 21st century “cowboys and Indians” movie, pitting a Native people battling to preserve their homeland against settlers encroaching on their slice of Brazil’s southern Amazon rainforest. In doing so, warpaint-daubed Uru Eu Wau Wau warriors use traditional bows and arrows, as well as video and cellphone cameras, to defend their land and age-old way of life. In doing so, as director Alex Pritz reveals in this candid conversation, the Indigenous people are not only the subjects of The Territory, but also integral participants in the filmmaking process, actively helping to shape the representation of their screen image to themselves and the outside world. As such, The Territory is a landmark work in the history of Indigenous cinema.

The 83-minute nonfiction production depicts the struggle of the Uru Eu Wau Wau against reactionary Pres. Jair Bolsonaro, “the Trump of the Tropics,” and the hordes of non-Native invaders he incites to invade the Brazilian counterparts to US reservations for tribal nations. The Territory also deals with issues of the climate crisis, environmental racism, sovereignty and more. Oscar-nominated director Darren Aronofsky shares producer credits. Premiering in the World Cinema competition at the Sundance Film Festival, The Territory is the only film to win both an Audience Award and Special Jury Award for Documentary Craft in 2022

What is The Territory?

Alex Pritz: The Territory is a feature [length] documentary film about Indigenous resistance to land invasions in the Brazilian Amazon. It started in 2018. I reached out to Neidinha Bandeira, an activist working to protect the Amazon rainforest and Indigenous peoples that live there. I was really inspired by her work. Here’s this woman, battling tooth and nail, against all odds and she’s funny, too. She’s got a great personality, a fiery spirit… She is the activist in our movie…

When the elections began to heat up in Brazil, we saw this rhetoric emanating from the Bolsonaro campaign about not leaving any land to Indigenous people and really violent, hateful stuff. I reached back out to Neidinha and said, “Hey, it seems as if Bolsonaro wins, it’s going to become really difficult for you to keep doing your job. Can I come and talk to you and meet you?”

So, I did and followed her through the elections and the inauguration. That development trip turned into – okay, holy shit, we’ve got a pretty big story on our hands here. And I kept pulling at that thread. Neidinha introduced me to the Uru Eu Wau Wau community, this Indigenous group, who are protagonists in the film as well… That was the first time I’d been to Brazil.

The title of your film is The Territory. Tell us about the territory that the Uru Eu Wau Wau inhabit?

Brazil has a series of Indigenous territories, Indigenous reserves, that are in various forms of legal protection. The Uru Eu Wau Wau territory is at the highest levels of legal protection. It is fully, federally demarcated, it is enshrined in Brazil’s new constitution that this land is sovereign to Indigenous people. It’s 6,000 square miles of land – a really big area of land, it’s three times the size of Delaware. 18,000 square kilometers. You can see it from outer space. Looking at Brazil coast-to-coast you can clearly see this area of land. And it’s 183 people left defending it, down from in the thousands, before forced contact and assimilation came from the Brazilian state.

You said it has the highest level of protection, but are the federal and other government authorities actually defending it? And what’s happening with settler incursions?

Great point. On paper, it’s at the highest level of protection. In practice, it is extremely threatened by invading farmers, miners, illegal loggers, prospectors. It’s open season on any protected lands in the Amazon, and especially Indigenous lands. That’s not a new story – that’s been around since the Portuguese arrived 500 years ago, that Indigenous land was stolen and expropriated. But it’s taken on a new tenor under this current president who has verbally encouraged a lot of people to go out and take this land by force.

What about the argument that Bolsonaro has made, that in the particular case of the Uru Eu Wau Wau, there are approximately 35 square miles per each inhabitant? Many Brazilians live in favellas and crowded cities and the Indigenous people are being extremely “selfish” by wanting to keep all of that land for themselves? What is their response to that argument?

Yeah, it’s a really common refrain. It’s been around since the [1964-1985 military] dictatorship in Brazil. Too much land for too few people. Without speaking for the Uru Eu Wau Wau, from my perspective, it depends which way you look at it. The Indigenous land has been continually shrunk since the arrival of the Brazilian state. It used to all be theirs; now 13% of the country is Indigenous territory. Depending on how you divide it, it could feel like a lot in terms of private property. But when you think about it from their perspective, it’s quite little.

The other point is “too much land for too few people” could also be applied to these mega-landowners, these rich ranchers who own huge tracts of land and are very small in number and are gobbling up whatever protected land is left. That argument, too much land for too few people, gets used by populist movements on the right, to try to paint Indigenous people as the ones holding the country back from economic progress. When looking at it from the other side, it’s the consolidation of land and the huge land inequality that exists in Brazil because of these mega-farmers, who automate all of their processes, use heavy fertilizer inputs and make it impossible for small subsistence farmers to compete in the market.

For Westerners, for settlers, for cattle ranchers, private property is always sacred and paramount – unless it’s owned by Indigenous people.

[Laughs.] Yes; exactly. And Indigenous land isn’t private property – it’s communally owned. No individual Indigenous person can buy or sell that land; they have the right to live on it. They don’t have the mineral rights to anything underneath it. It’s well-protected, but it’s a tenuous thing.

All these settlers and farmers view themselves as creating private property out of wilderness, out of nothing. And that’s the most virtuous thing you can do, is the creation of private property. What better way to spend your life and labor? That’s at the core of it – it’s a “sacred” thing.

In Australia, the British colonizers talked about “terra nullius” – except, it’s not “empty land.” There are already people living there.

Exactly… The idea of terra nullius, this blank slate. You’re going out and discovering or colonizing some new area – that’s an old idea, too. It’s still alive and well in Brazil and being put to use in clearly destructive ways. That’s the same idea that drove the Westward expansion of the US, and the displacement of and land theft against Indigenous people here. You have “Manifest Destiny,” a divine right to the land. These are ideas that are really clearly present in The Territory, a live and vibrant ideological fuel for these settlers. Those are all ideas that are clearly part of the American colonial project as well. So, a lot of parallels between these two states, purely because they’re both colonial states built on racial slavery, racial capitalism. Of course, they’re built from the same bedrock of ideas.

Indigenous people’s conception of the Earth, of the land, is a sense of oneness. There isn’t this kind of separation between nature and “civilization.” How are these incursions, in terms of clearcutting, logging, fires – how is it affecting climate change in the Amazon, which is often referred to as “the lungs of the Earth”?

In terms of climate change, and the Amazon being this crucially important buffer against the worst effects of climate change, that’s something that Bitaté [a young Indigenous leader] and the Uru Eu Wau Wau are very aware of. They understand the importance of this rainforest, not just for them, but for the farmers that live nearby. The Uru Eu Wau Wau territory is the headwaters for 17 different major rivers in the state of Rondônia. All of the irrigation water these farmers are using comes from their land. It’s important that these forests remain standing. They want to be able to continue to grow crops. Let alone the rising climate, the funky weather patterns, all of this other destruction that’s going to come to agriculture if we let climate change run rampant. Couldn’t think of anything that’s more important than protecting this land and Bitaté and the Uru Eu Wau Wau are very aware of their role and their responsibility in that.

As a film historian what interested me most in The Territory is the depiction of the screen image of the Indigenous people. I have co-authored three movie history books about Pacific Islanders in film and on TV. You use the term that in the documentary, the Indigenous people are the “protagonists.” You’re a white American, born and raised in Ithaca, New York, and tell us about not only the Uru Eu Wau Wau as protagonists, but what I love about the production is that they also play a role in the filmmaking.

Yeah. Bitaté and the younger generation of the Uru Eu Wau Wau are very media savvy. Very politically-oriented. Understand the power of narrative and storytelling in a really deep and nuanced way. Bitaté was using drones as we got there – not our drones. Independent of us, he was writing grant applications to get drones and drone training to be able to use images as evidence against these ideas that the Uru Eu Wau Wau were lying, or misrepresenting the truth. Coming from his parents and grandparents’ generation, which is an oral culture, it was very easy to dismiss these claims that Indigenous people were making about violence or destruction of their land. Bitaté saw cameras largely as a tool for evidence. Over time, he’s grown to see it also as a form of self-expression, and artistic expression, as well. I thought that was just a really great and wonderful storyline to dig into.

There are references to the Western genre in our film. Sergio says, “It’s like a Western movie out here.” And the settlers love Western movies because it reinforces and justifies their view of the world. They are easy tropes that we could have played with, cowboys and Indigenous people. We wanted to pull some of those aesthetics into our film, but then try to subvert them, wherever we could, in terms of the tropes and storylines. That became really easy with Bitaté, because he is so politically savvy and understands the media. Sergio and the settlers are all these really naïve characters, who don’t understand the historical context of their actions, the ecological consequences of what they’re doing. Wherever we could we wanted to tap into this history of how Indigenous people have been represented on the screen, but also subvert people’s expectations of how that might look in a modern film.

A number of the Uru Eu Wau Wau have screen credits?

Tangãi is a co-cinematographer. Txai Suruí, Tejubi Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau and Potei Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau are executive producers. We’ve got the Uru Eu Wau Wau as community, our co-producers of the film themselves. That all happened through Covid.

I had brought cameras down prior, and done some basic filmmaking workshops. Most of the elders of in this community had never seen a feature film before. We talk a lot academically in the film industry about informed consent… For us it was super important that in order to have a conversation about whether this community wanted to be in a film, that we were able to express what a film is, what it’s capable of and the beauty and wonderful things that could come from a film and an associated impact campaign. But also, the cost of being in a film. It’s a lot of work and we’re all up in your business… there’s not a lot of privacy…

The only way we found to be able to do that honestly was to bring cameras and have you interview me and I interview you; here’s how you work a camera; here’s how you edit; here’s how you shape and sculpt a narrative and people’s perception of your community and history. Only with that common understanding did it feel like we could ask permission to be given the trust to sculpt their narrative with them.

Then under Covid all this foundation of trust and mutual understanding came to fruition when Bitaté said: “Nobody’s allowed in our territory any more, including you, Alex, including documentary film teams. Full stop. Nobody’s coming in.” So, we had to say, “Okay, what next? Are we done? Do we start editing? How do we go from here?” Bitaté said really clearly: “No! Just send us the cameras, the same audio equipment you have. We’ll shoot, we’ll produce, we’ll manage the rest of the film from here.”

I was really excited by that. We had no idea what would come from it. We had no idea if it would work at all. But it also opened up this possibility for us to engage with the community in a business sense… We helped them create an association that could become co-producers on the film, receive an equal portion of the profits from the film, and also have a say in business decisions, like where are we going to distribute this film?…

Instead of you being an “auteur,” you’re part of a collective.

Exactly… The Uru Eu Wau Wau community makes decisions by consensus. Things have to be a unanimous decision. There has to be a representative from each of the six villages present to make any decision. A big one for us was whether we were going to show Ari – who dies in the film, he’s killed. Whether we were going to show his image. Normally, in the Uru Eu Wau Wau culture, that doesn’t happen. Speak of the dead – you don’t show images of the dead. That’s the type of decision that has to happen collectively.

Very different from the average film team, which is super hierarchical. We have a director and producers who make decisions, and assistant editors and assistant camera people who carry out those decisions. So that was a big learning thing for me, was trying to merge these two ways of structuring organizations. There’s a lot I’ll carry with me from making this film into whatever I do next.

What is next for you?

I’m working on a film about a space program in a developing country.

What is an “Indigenous aesthetic” and how is it different from Hollywood?

Great question…

Cinematic “self-determination” means that the self determines how it is represented – not the outsiders.

Yeah. That’s a great thought. Part of the ethos of this film is exactly that. Also thinking about who the self is represented to? Who the audience for this is? It’s a big point of ours that this film is able to be seen in Brazil, that this film is not just self-representation for an outside audience and external consumption. But that this film can be shown in Indigenous communities in Brazil. We’re working to translate this film into the Indigenous language spoken by the Uru Eu Wau Wau… We’re lucky to have National Geographic on board and have an impact campaign that’s prioritizing those types of things so we can get this film out into other Indigenous communities and have those types of conversations in the world.

The Territory opens in theaters starting August 19. For details see:

L.A.-based film historian/critic Ed Rampell is the co-author of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book and Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States.

Ed Rampell was named after legendary CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow because of his TV exposes of Senator Joe McCarthy. Rampell majored in Cinema at Manhattan’s Hunter College and is an L.A.-based film historian/critic who co-organized the 2017 70th anniversary Blacklist remembrance at the Writers Guild theater in Beverly Hills and was a moderator at 2019’s “Blacklist Exiles in Mexico” filmfest and conference at the San Francisco Art Institute. Rampell co-presented “The Hollywood Ten at 75” film series at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and is the author of Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States and co-author of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.