Alex Pritz’s documentary “The Territory” drops us right onto the front lines of the battle to preserve the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. Pritz embeds us with each an Indigenous community under threat, the Uru Eu Wau Wau, and the farmers who seize Indigenous lands with apparent impunity. That on-the-ground approach brings a visceral suspense to global environmental issues and provides a firsthand view of a area people (numbering lower than 200) as they fight for survival in recent ways.
“This was an energetic conflict — almost an extended, slow war,” Pritz, who has filmed in Somalia and Sudan, said last week. Heroes emerge — reminiscent of Bitaté Uru Eu Wau Wau, a young media-savvy Indigenous leader, and Neidinha Bandeira, a nervy veteran activist — but the specter of violence proves all too real. I spoke with Pritz (who began the production in 2018) about navigating multiple perspectives and visualizing the vast deforestation. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How did you construct trust with the Uru Eu Wau Wau community?
The important thing to any documentary is all of the relationships that occur off camera. I believe the elders especially were skeptical of outsiders. That they had total media fatigue. “What the hell are all these journalists doing taking on all our time coming here, and we’re not seeing anything change?” I desired to reveal what the film would seem like, would feel like, and what it may very well be able to. That was a slow process, partially since the elders had never seen a feature film before. That’s where Bitaté and this younger cohort locally got here in, to assist explain.
A giant part was bringing some small cameras with me, having people interview me and attempting to reveal what being a part of a documentary entails: I’m all up in your enterprise eight hours a day. We also showed them Brazilian movies — [including] “Bacurau,” — and we talked about representation within the media.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, how did the Uru Eu Wau Wau help shoot the film?
In August 2020, I brought a bunch of other camera kits and audio equipment, sanitized them and left them at the sting of the villages. People would pick up the cameras, and we might communicate over WhatsApp about any technical problems. The scene that I believe makes the entire film was shot by Tangãi Uru Eu Wau Wau, my co-cinematographer: their arrest of an invader. I actually have shot lots of surveillance missions myself, and once we saw the footage coming from Tangãi, it was so clear from the primary frame that his was just plain higher. You felt the chaos and tension in a way that I just wasn’t capturing. The opposite side of it, too, is that by working with the Uru Eu Wau Wau as co-producers, they’re receiving an equal portion of direct profits of the film.
There’s an extended tradition of participatory filmmaking across the Amazon. I used to be really inspired by Vincent Carelli and Video nas Aldeias [Video in the Villages], and there’s an incredible network of Indigenous media creators in Brazil.
How did you usher in the angle of the farmers?
The impetus to achieve out to them got here from Neidinha and Bitaté. [They felt] if we would like to indicate what we’re up against in a possible way, go seek advice from the people who are committing these acts of violence and this destruction. The [farmers] association of Rio Bonito felt like they’d a point of impunity because their guy was in office at that time. Bolsonaro talked about “iPhone Indigenous people.” He and lots of these settlers tried to delegitimize Indigenous people who are engaging with technology.
The farmers were skeptical and distrustful [of us], but I believe they admire America, and the American West specifically. Especially starting this [film] in 2018 under Trump’s America, they felt this mutual respect between Brazil and the US as these two colonial countries. And so they see themselves because the heroes of this story.
Our basic social contract was, “You’re going to talk for yourself, and there will likely be competing points of view presented alongside yours.” I didn’t say we were talking to Bitaté Uru Eu Wau Wau the following week! We needed to have really clear boundaries of data, because I could never be put ready where I had to offer up sensitive information. That will be each morally and ethically bad, but in addition dangerous. There was at all times the sense that you simply’re being watched. I’d get photos of me sent from numbers I didn’t know.
Did you ever feel your life was in peril?
I used to be at all times more nervous for the members of our team which can be in Brazil, day in, time out. But we were totally aware of the risks. And so they’re definitely there. The rule of law doesn’t extend to lots of these parts of the Amazon. There have been moments once we felt like, “We want to get out of town immediately.” You recognize, this interview didn’t go well, it’s in these small towns with 150 people and one hotel that’s probably not a hotel, it’s any person’s house, and everybody knows you’re there. After which I could be followed out of town or something.
The movie also zooms out with dramatic satellite photos of deforestation. How did those come together?
Massive amounts of land are being chewed up, and the one firewalls against it are these Indigenous territories, which you possibly can see so clearly in these time-lapses. Anything that’s private property turns to brown. I built this whole sequence originally occurring Google Earth Pro: Take a screenshot, bump up a yr, take a recent screenshot, bump up a yr. Luckily, our executive producer was this amazing 25-year-old activist, Txai Suruí, and her father, Almir Suruí, had, in a previous decade, gone to Google and said, “We want higher images of the Amazon!” Through that relationship, we were in a position to ask Google Earth to allow us to use these images. But it surely was only a cool full circle to understand that the one reason we’ve got these images is due to one other visionary Indigenous leader who had already considered this.