Manifesting destiny

INDIGENOUS RIGHTS: Promised dominion over their own rainforest territory, Brazil's Uru-eu-wau-wau people have since faced illegal incursions from mining companies and land-grabbing invasions spurred on by right-wing politicians.

As a critic keenly attuned to white (especially American) saviour filmmaking, I was admittedly wary of tuning in to Alex Pritz’s debut feature The Territory, which just nabbed double honours (the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award: Documentary Craft and the Audience Award: World Cinema Documentary) at this year’s online Sundance. The film follows the plight of the Indigenous Uru-eu-wau-wau people, who, along with the Brazilian rainforest they call home, may soon no longer exist. Pritz, a non-Indigenous American director, and cinematographer – who’s worked with Matthew Heineman, another white American that likewise has a habit of dropping in on foreign conflict zones to lend a do-gooding cinematic hand – originally was introduced to the Uru-eu-wau-wau through environmental and human rights activist Neidinha Bandeira. The feisty Bandeira, who grew up in the rainforest observing the tribe and eventually became one of the doc’s main characters, has fought for the Uru-eu-wau-wau for decades though is not Indigenous herself. Nor for that matter is Gabriel Uchida, the Sao Paolo-born journalist, and photographer who connected Pritz with Bandeira in the first place. (Uchida is listed as a producer on the film – as is high-profile white American Darren Aronofsky.)

The Territory, a film by Alex Pritz
The Territory, a film by Alex Pritz

A complicated triangle

In other words, all of this non-Indigenous involvement – especially at a time when ridiculously talented filmmakers like New Zealander (Te Whānau-ā-Apanui Māori) Taika Waititi and Native American (Muscogee Creek/Seminole) Sterlin Harjo are landing deals in Hollywood and bringing all-Indigenous crews with them – initially left me rather queasy. I had a hard time settling into The Territory, constantly aware of the «every scene must be edge-of-your-seat» cutting and florid dramatic score. (Regardless of the fact that the doc is co-produced and partially shot by the Uru-eu-wau-wau people, these choices struck me as tres Western. More is more!) And yet, as I watched the film’s narrative unfold, I began to wonder if, in fact, the director’s firmly outsider status actually brought him unparalleled access. For as much as the Uru-eu-wau-wau (especially young leader Bitate and the tribe’s fearless champion Bandeira) are at the heart of The Territory, they are only one crucial leg of a very complicated triangle.

as I watched the film’s narrative unfold, I began to wonder if, in fact, the director’s firmly outsider status actually brought him unparalleled access.

The second segment is represented by a middle-aged farm worker named Sergio, who’s spent his entire life struggling to make ends meet on The Man’s land – and now sees settling the rainforest as his salvation. Sergio is a by-the-book kind of guy, leader of the Association of Rio Bonito, who, along with fellow members, plans to follow the rules to stake a claim to a plot legally. He’s also surprisingly candid with this filmmaker, who happens to be from a colonialist country built via westward expansion.

As is the third (albeit unnamed) character – who can only be described as a nonchalantly lawbreaking, smash and grab (or rather cut and burn) homesteader. He and his fellow outlaws, similarly impoverished, actually feel entitled to the protected rainforest. After all, the Uru-eu-wau-wau only number in the couple of hundred – so why do they need to control thousands of miles of Brazilian land? It’s a rhetorical sentiment wholeheartedly endorsed by their deforestation-encouraging president, whose far-right presence looms like a dark shadow from beginning to end.

The Territory, a film by Alex Pritz
The Territory, a film by Alex Pritz

Fictional promises

And yet, by foregoing any specific focus on the political macro – smartly, the Bolsonaro show mostly stays out of frame – we’re better able to see the bigger global picture. Environmentally catastrophic fascist policies aside, what’s really killing the Uru-eu-wau-wau and eventually all of humankind (the planet will survive just fine without us) is something The Territory makes crystal clear – social inequity. For the one element these Indigenous people and the indigent colonialists all share is a lack of power in deciding their fate. Which naturally is by design – as those at the capitalistic top can only stay in control by keeping those on the struggling bottom focused on fighting amongst themselves. And thus, the path to worldwide destruction is forever maintained by the fictional promise of a piece of the American-exported dream.

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Lauren Wissot
Lauren Wissot
A US-based film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer.

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