Few nations have a good track record when it comes to their history with indigenous populations. Colonial beginnings are slowly giving way to a recognition of the suppression and erasure of native cultures, but not everyone is on board with progressive changes. In The Territory, Alex Pritz spotlights the Uru-eu-wau-wau, a people in the Amazon rainforest first contacted in 1981 by the Brazilian government, fighting not only to be seen but also to survive as invaders seek to destroy their land to claim it for themselves. Its title is perfectly fitting, since the Uru-eu-wau-wau culture is just as much about the people as it is the place they call home.
The scope of the battle the Uru-eu-wau-wau face is made clear with a series of harrowing clips from the presidential campaign of Jair Bolsonaro, who was elected leader of Brazil in 2018. His rhetoric echoes much of the right-wing hatred for minority populations spouted by authoritarians all around the world, and he reserves a particular contempt for the designation of new reservations. Though Bolsonaro has recently been defeated in this year’s election, his refusal to commit to a transfer of power comes as no surprise given how his derogatory speech has emboldened others to express their prejudices in violent and unhinged ways. For the Uru-eu-wau-wau, that means direct aggression on the part of farmers who want to take back the land they believe they deserve by planting themselves on it in spite of the fact that others are already there.
There is a true intimacy to The Territory since the people for whom this fight means everything get plenty of screen time. Chief among them is Ari Uru-eu-wau-wau, an activist whose murder and the lack of any sincere movement in solving it makes the experience of watching this film especially heartening. The reaction to his death from another activist, Neidinha Bandeira, is also poignant, and, as often happens, her sadness quickly turns to rage and an even more fervent attempt to advocate on behalf of all indigenous people to continue to claim a stake in what is there. Her disappointment in the inaction of an office supposedly charged with native relations is also indicative of the government diversity and inclusion efforts that are entirely performative.
The filmmakers also enjoy a striking level of access to the invading forces who don’t even seek to hide the fact that they are setting fire to forests and settling themselves somewhere that isn’t supposed to be theirs. They believe they have been given permission by their new president to take what they want, and that they have endured their own struggles that give them the right to ignore historical and geographical boundaries, or any other person’s long-serving claim of ownership. For the purposes of documentary filmmaking, it’s eye-opening to see them champion their cause, but on a human level, it’s highly demoralizing.
But The Territory is not devoid of hope, and what proves most compelling is the desire of the Uru-eu-wau-wau to tell their own story. When the COVID-19 pandemic hits, the Uru-eu-wau-wau are on high alert given how much their numbers were decimated several decades ago when they first met the Brazilian people through the communication of diseases. Rather than have a crew of outsiders come in to film them and broadcast their fight against invaders, they declare themselves fit for the job, suggesting that they should be paid instead to deliver footage. On the film, Tangãi Uru-eu-wau-wau receives billing alongside director Pritz for its cinematography, and that collaboration is felt throughout the entire film, which also includes the frequent use of drones to show the overarching picture and the irreversible actions of miners and loggers. This is not a documentary looking from the outside in on the Uru-eu-wau-wau, but instead one that opens up the community in a vulnerable and honest way to all those who should be compelled to action by the facts on the ground.
The Territory airs December 1 at 10pm on National Geographic and streams December 2 on Disney+.
Photo: Alex Pritz