The indigenous Uru-eu-wau-wau people live in a region of rainforest in the state of Rondônia in northwestern Brazil. They made the news in 1981, when they made their first contact with the outside world, and they’ve probably been regretting it ever since, because almost all of what has come from their contact with “civilization” has been negative—farmers and ranchers want to take their land, missionaries want to convert them, and contagious diseases threaten their population.
In 1993, the Brazilian government declared their traditional lands the “Uru-eu-wau-wau Indigenous Territory,” with the stipulation that only indigenous people can live there. That may have been a well-meaning gesture, but without effective enforcement, it’s just words on paper. In reality, the Uru-eu-wau-wau lands are like “an island of rainforest surrounded by farms,” and the farms are constantly encroaching on the indigenous territory. It’s like that Algernon Blackwood tale in which an island becomes mysteriously smaller while the protagonist sleeps, except that there’s no mystery about the forces at work in the Amazon—capitalism coupled with racism and plain old-fashioned greed.
Alex Pritz’s The Territory puts you in the heart of the action as the Uru-eu-wau-wau, whose traditional way of life centers on hunting and gathering, defend their land against incursion by representatives of the modern capitalist world. The film begins in 2018, not coincidentally the year Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil. Bolsonaro, no friend of Brazil’s indigenous peoples, has weakened environmental and territorial protections as part of his campaign promises to exploit the riches of the Amazon region through mining, commercial ranching and farming, and oil exploration. If things were bad before, they just got worse for the Uru-eu-wau-wau and other indigenous peoples trying to preserve their traditions and hold on to their land.
They’re not giving up, however, but using modern technology alongside their traditional knowledge (their skill with homemade bows and arrows is something to see) to document incursions into their territory and to track and capture individuals who come on their land to destroy it. Their leader, Bitaté, is a cheerful young man well-versed in both his native culture and the ways of the modern world, as is Ari, who uses drones to observe incursions into the rainforest from above. The Uru-eu-wau-wau cause is aided by environmental activist Neidinha Bandeira, an outsider but friend of the community who Bitaté refers to as his “second mother.” Still, they’re swimming upstream against the tide, battling opponents willing to kill to take what they want, and a government that has declared itself an enemy to their survival.
Pritz is clearly on the side of the Uru-eu-wau-wau, but he does allow the encroachers to state their case. One is Sérgio, a farmer who dreams of owning his own land, and intends to follow the letter of the law in doing so. He founded the Association of Rural Producers of Rio Bonito to help other poor families improve their lives, and, like most people, feels he is doing the right thing. Another settler, Martin, is less measured in his justifications: he sees no value in preserving the indigenous communities, and has no qualms about cutting down an ancient forest to build a road because that’s how things are done in Brazil.
The Territory celebrates the beauty of the rainforest and the calm way of life practiced by the Uru-eu-wau-wau, but doesn’t downplay the serious threats to their survival. Screenshots deliver facts (e.g., invasions of indigenous territory doubled in Brazil in 2021) that place the circumstances of this specific tribe in perspective. Some of the footage was shot by tribe members, which provides the film with remarkable access to their lives while also empowering them to take part in the telling of their own story. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Territory is available for home viewing in the United States as part of the 25th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which runs from 12 pm ET on April 7, 2022, through 11:59 pm ET on April 10, 2022. Further information is available through the festival web site.