“The Territory” brings a new perspective on environmental issues in the Amazon Rainforest

Malina Seenarine

The Baruch College Performing Art Center hosted a screening of the new documentary “The Territory” and a discussion with the director, Alex Pritz.

The documentary highlights the struggles of the indigenous Uru-eu-wau people in the Amazon Rainforest as they try to protect their land from settlers and deforestation in Brazil.

The Susan Locke Interdisciplinary Capstone and Environmental Sustainability and Climate Change Initiative hosted the screening. Baruch journalism professor Emily Johnson organized the event and led the Q&A.

Members of Baruch’s Society of Professional Journalists were invited to attend the event, as was the larger Baruch community and the public.

After reading about Brazil’s presidential elections and seeing hateful rhetoric about indigenous people, Pritz went to Brazil to interview Brazilian activist Neidinha Banderia.

During his visit, he said he quickly understood that his story needed to focus on the indigenous tribe that belongs to a large section of the Amazon Rainforest. This was during the 2018 election season when candidate Jair Bolsonaro gained popularity. In his campaign, Bolsonaro repeatedly said he planned to deregulate protections and enforcement of the Amazon Rainforest and said indigenous people should be “emancipated,” meaning lose their rights to indigenous land.

Pritz knew that connecting with the Uru-eu-wau people to create this film was not going to be an easy task.

“I had very little cultural overlap with this community,” he said to an audience full of Baruch students.

Pritz said he recognized that he had “zero lived experience as an indigenous person” so when he visited the tribe, he came with cameras and let the members of the community film him and ask him questions to show how the process worked.

“Especially if the community is so stigmatized and persecuted by the state, that felt like a really important part of the process,” Pritz said. He emphasized that enthusiastic consent is a pivotal part of creating a film like “The Territory.”

Through scenes of greenery, creeks that run through the rainforest and intimate conversations between the Uru-eu-wau community, viewers are introduced to Bitatè. At only 18-years-old, he became the leader of the Uru-eu-wau people. He was chosen to protect his community from settlers who try to impose on their land.

Pritz said he wanted to portray the settlers with some nuance, something that was missing from news coverage.

In some scenes the audience sees the settlers with American paraphernalia such as cowboy hats and large belt buckles. They said they believe they had a God-given right to settle on the land and farm because they perceived the Uru-eu-wau people as not doing anything useful with the land.

Since the Uru-eu-wau people did not feel like the police were doing anything about settlers infringing on their land, Bitatè decided to take matters into his own hands and create a patrol team to catch invaders. Because Brazil’s Uru-eu-wau-wau Indigenous Reserve is a sprawling 6,950 square miles, they used drones and walkie-talkies to help survey the land.

With a dwindling Uru-eu-wau-wau population that was less than 200 by the start of filming, Pritz said it was imperative that the community not be exposed to COVID-19. He said it was an easy decision to let Bitatè and others in the community finish filming the documentary when the pandemic hit.

“What started as a sort of a participatory approach, moved into a real co-production,” he said.

The documentary also highlights the dangers of fighting to protect the Amazon. In one scene, the activist Banderia receives a call about her daughter being kidnapped. Pritz said these threats happened multiple times.

The most recent presidential election in Brazil was a driving force for Pritz to finish the film. He wanted to have the documentary out before the election.

“We were trying to finish it in time to be able to have something to say about the political legacy of this current president,” he said.

Under Bolsonaro’s presidency, deforestation is the highest it has been in the past 15 years.

For Pritz, “The Territory” needed to be politically impactful, not just entertaining or inspirational. His team worked with investors who would take the money they made on the film and invest it into an impact campaign. This helped build a media center in the Uru-eu-wau-wau territory with editing equipment and recording and exhibition spaces.