A network of government-backed farmers is eating into indigenous territory in the Brazilian rainforest, but a local activist and his team are fighting back… with video cameras as weapons.
New documentary The Territory follows the efforts of the Indigenous Amazon community called the Uru-eu-wau-wau to protect their land from aggressive deforestation efforts.
After winning both the Audience Award and a Special Jury Award for Craft at Sundance, the movie was acquired by National Geographic, which released it last week to kick off an awards season run.
The film has won plaudits for portraying different sides of the conflict, a decision made by the Uru-eu-wau-wau themselves.
During a discussion with Time’s Laura Zornosa, director Alex Pritz shares what Brazilian environmental activist Neidinha Bandeira and president of the Jupaú Association, Bitatè Uru-eu-wau-wau (members of the Uru-eu-wau-wau community use this as their last name), told him: “If we want to do something bigger and deeper and more honest, go talk to the people that are committing these acts of violence and destruction, because we’re not the cause of this conflict. Because it does a disservice to those people that are on the frontlines dealing with this messy, convoluted, complex conflict to paint things in terms that are too reductionist or too simplistic.”
“The protagonists of our film see the rainforest in very different ways,” Pritz tells Filmmaker Magazine. “Understanding these perspective differences and illustrating them through the film’s cinematography was the central creative challenge in shooting this film. For scenes involving Indigenous participants, we often shot handheld and employed a loose and fluid aesthetic on wider focal lengths. When shooting with the farmer/settlers, we would frequently switch to a tripod with a longer zoom lens to build a more mechanical feeling to our cinematography.”
Gaining trust among the community was essential, and the filmmakers did so by working with Bandeira, who has received death threats because of her work. Once she knew that the story was in good hands with The Territory’steam, she connected them with Bitaté Uru-eu-wau-wau, the 22-year-old president of an Indigenous leadership body that engages with the government.
READ MORE: “Capturing the Scale of the Amazon Rainforest Is an Impossible Task”: DP Alex Pritz on The Territory (Filmmaker Magazine)
Bitaté was already working with other Uru-eu-wau-wau members to set up drones and additional cameras to document illegal settlers in their home.
“Bitatè was interested in drones and what they were capable of as far as his community before we arrived,” Pritz says in an interview with Moveable Feast’s Stephen Saito. “He had had training on how to use drones and the World Wildlife Foundation had given them several drone packages, so we were saying to ourselves, ‘Wow, this is really interesting. The thing that we’re doing is the thing they find really powerful. Is there a way to merge this and blend it?’ ”
However, many other members of the community had little to no idea about what a camera even was.
“So the next time I came, we brought some small cameras with us, and just did some really basic participatory video workshops,” Pritz tells Michael Frank at The Film Stage.“The elders had never seen a film before. So how do you ask somebody if they want to be part of a film if they don’t know what a film is? Just super basic stuff, not really planning to use any of it, just to open up a more honest conversation about who I am and what I’m trying to do, as well as to impress upon people what they were entrusting me with.”
READ MORE: The Territory Director Alex Pritz on Local Conflicts, Narrative Control, and Ethical Choices (The Film Stage)
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This dramatically changed in August 2020 when COVID prevented Pritz and his team from filming in the rainforest. So much trust had been established by that point though that the Uru-eu-wau-wau simply asked for more equipment to finish the filming themselves.
“Bitatè told us basically, ‘Send us better camera equipment, send us lav mics,’” he tells Saito. “We have this little stuff that’s been donated by NGOs, but we want professional equipment if we’re going to keep shooting this for you while you aren’t allowed to enter our territory.’ ”
In a discussion with Nicholas Rapold at The New York Times, Pritz elaborates: “I brought a bunch of other camera kits and audio equipment, sanitized them and left them at the edge of the villages. People would pick up the cameras, and we would communicate over WhatsApp about any technical problems. The scene that I think makes the whole film was shot by Tangãi Uru-eu-wau-wau, my co-cinematographer: their arrest of an invader. I have shot a lot of surveillance missions myself, and when we saw the footage coming from Tangãi, it was so clear from the first frame that his was just plain better. You felt the chaos and tension in a way that I just wasn’t capturing.”
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Not only did dropping off camera kits at the edge of the rainforest for the Uru-eu-wau-wau to claim ultimately keep the production going, “but the variety of perspectives yields an unusually rich overview of competing interests that make environmental crises so difficult to resolve yet put potential solutions within grasp when it can be appreciated where everyone’s coming from,” Saito finds.
READ MORE: Alex Pritz on Looking at All Sides of an Environmental Crisis in “The Territory” (Moveable Feast)
Cinematography credit is shared between Pritz and Tangãi Uru-eu-wau-wau. Bitatè will become the first member of the Uru-eu-wau-wau to attend college this fall, where he will study journalism.
The Uru-eu-wau-wau are also credited as co-producers and will receive an equal portion of direct profits of the film.
Marianna Olinger, the film’s impact producer, has been spearheading efforts to help build a multimedia and cultural center in the Uru-eu wau-wau territory using both traditional architecture and modern designs, reports Time. The center will include a production studio, podcasting area, equipment storage, and editing bays — designed for the Uru-eu-wau-wau to keep telling their own stories.
“It’s much bigger than it was originally envisioned,” Pritz tells IndieWire’s Eric Kohan. “It’s a whole other chapter in this impact campaign.”
The project’s producer is Protozoa Pictures, the production outfit belonging to Darren Aronofsky, who tells Kohan that the story fitted with his own environmentally-conscious non-fiction projects like Welcome to Earth, his own directorial work like Noah, and the allegorical creation story of Mother!
“I was trying to point out that there’s a story about environmentalism that’s the fourth one in the Bible, something that’s been a part of our literature and history for a long time,” he says, about Noah. “I was trying to depoliticize it in whatever way I could.
“Mother! was very much an outgrowth of what I was reading, thinking, and seeing happen to the environment,” he continues. “I just wanted to create a howl as loud as I possibly could.”
In the same interview, Pritz says the Protozoa team encouraged him to push the story in a more cinematic direction. “I started to think of it as a Western more than a documentary,” he says. “It was an extremely hostile environment where people are working to protect the environment, but we had to work both sides of the conflict, which was a fine line to straddle.”