‘The Territory’ is a Vital Story of Indigenous Resilience and Resistance

[Co-published with Geek Vibes Nation.]

A war is happening for the soul of a community, a nation, and the entire planet.

It is not happening in eastern Europe, the Middle East, or in the fraught halls of the United States government. The backdrop of this war is the Brazilian Amazon, which accounts for 60% of the most consequential biome on Earth.

If that doesn’t at least raise an eyebrow of concern, The Territory quickly and boldly connects the dots. The National Geographic documentary follows the lives of the Indigenous Uru-eu-wau-wau people as they struggle against frequent encroachments on their territory by illegal settlers and farmers. The Brazilian government ostensibly protects their land. However, the election of president Jair Bolsonaro, who has publicly espoused anti-Indigenous views, encouraged settlers to break the law and burn down forests to make way for their farms and communities. Deforestation not only puts the Indigenous communities at risk. The Amazon is critical to regulating the Earth’s climate, and deforestation will render the rainforest unsustainable and push the planet closer to catastrophe.

Neidinha Bandeira, an environmental activist, bathes in a river in the Amazon rainforest. (Credit: Alex Pritz/Amazon Land Documentary)

Despite the extraordinarily high stakes, The Territory is a story about a community under environmental, philosophical, and spiritual siege. Director Alex Pritz follows closely behind the Uru-eu-wau-wau people, immersing us in their history, customs, and traditions without seeking overwrought explanation or clarification. Bitaté, the 19-year-old community leader, is savvy and dynamic, with a youthful glow that is only tempered by the existential threats surrounding him and his people. Neidinha Bandeira, an environmental and human rights activist and close ally to the Uru-eu-wau-wau people, faces acute threats of violence because of her vital work. Neidinha rushes home after an anonymous caller claims to have kidnapped her daughter in retaliation, only to find it was an evil prank.

It’s one of several harrowing moments in The Territory. Pritz captures them with the taut intensity of a narrative thriller, made even more discomfiting because it is real life. Similarly affecting is watching a group of settlers casually burn trees, the camera holding steady as swathes of irreplaceable wildlife go up in flames. It would be disturbing even without the context that Bitaté and Neidinha provide about its importance. With it, those flames and the resulting ash it leaves behind are soul-crushing.

An invader rides his motorcycle through the rainforest fire blaze. (Credit: Alex Pritz/Amazon Land Documentary)

The Territory also takes us into the world of the illegal settlers and farmers responsible for such destruction. Their actions are reprehensible (and illegal), but Pritz’s crew gives them space to share their perspective. The settlers are mainly reacting to their country’s difficult economic circumstances and choosing to rectify them. (At the expense of the Indigenous community, which they criticize for not doing anything with the land.) It is modernized Manifest Destiny in real-time. (A settlers’ association meeting starts with a prayer that further lionizes their mission.) The Territory could’ve fleshed out why the philosophy could appeal to Brazilians by further exploring the sociopolitical environment.

Perhaps that was the intention before COVID-19 ravaged the globe. The Territory picks up as the pandemic ravages Brazil, where settlers invading Indigenous territory introduce the virus to the population. Neidinha explains to a government agency that a significant portion of the Uru-eu-wau-wau people had died from COVID. Rather than shelving the project, Bitaté takes over for Pritz and coordinates his own filmmaking team to film their story. (Bitaté, in an incredible move, literally tells the crew to give them the shot list, and he’ll handle it.)

Bitaté Uru-eu-wau-wau hangs his foot out of the boat while fishing in his community’s protected Indigenous territory in Rondônia, Brazil. (Credit: Alex Pritz/Amazon Land Documentary)

The Territory gains even more urgency from the Uru-eu-wau-wau people’s direct perspective. We see, through their eyes, their journeys through the jungles to find illegal settlers and capture them. With the Uru-eu-wau-wau community behind the camera, the threat is visceral. We feel the destruction of their homes, the increasing waves of violence, and the introduction of a deadly virus into their communities. Even in moments of lightness, like in camera set-ups or behind-the-scenes footage, their intention and purpose are clear and vital.

In a way, The Territory is two films in one. By nature of brutal global circumstances, we get two distinct looks into the Uru-eu-wau-wau people’s fight for the right to exist. As tempting as it is, debating which perspective is better or more meaningful is beside the point. Ultimately, the documentary ascribes a breathless, sizzling urgency to a multi-faceted crisis that I imagine many people don’t understand. The two halves combine to tell an immersive, undeniable story of resilience and resistance. It’s the story of a people who are trying to save themselves and the world that otherizes them.

With The Territory, one can only hope that the Uru-eu-wau-wau people will no longer have to fight alone.

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