Youn the western Brazilian state of Rondônia, deep inside the Amazon, a swath of rainforest spans an area two and a half times the size of Delaware—a rich green oasis surrounded by pale farmland. This area is home to fewer than 200 residents: The Uru-euwau-wau Native people. They represent a small fraction of the thousands of Brazilians who first came into contact with them in 1980.
The Uru-eu-wau-wau—and their tireless fight against deforestation—are the subjects of the National Geographic documentary The TerritoryTIME Studios produced the film. It will be released in theaters this Friday.
After first contact, the Uru-eu-wau-wau’s population dropped drastically due to conflict and disease introduced by outsiders. A new threat from the outside has emerged: the deforestation and subsequent destruction of Indigenous land. This is a community with a strong independence, which values its own culture. It also avoids outsiders, for good reasons. The Uru-euwau-wau allowed creators to be created, but they were cautious. The TerritoryThe crew was diligent in its research and collaboration thrived.
Alex Pritz was a cinematographer and director who first saw the work Neidinha Bandeira’s 63-year-old Brazilian activist. The latter has been working closely with Indigenous communities for more than 40 years. Bandeira’s “fiery force of spirit” drew Pritz in, and when the 2018 presidential election got underway in Brazil—and Jair Bolsonaro’s negative rhetoric around Indigenous people and the environment began to heat up—the filmmaker reached out.
Pritz, Gabriel Uchida (brazilian producer), met Bandeira. As they were driving together along the edge of the rainforest, it erupted into flames—a common tactic of guerrilla deforestation used by those who seek to illegally clear and farm Native land. Pritz told Bandeira to pull over and then he walked towards the fire. Bandeira was able to see that the director was committed and courageous enough for a film which would have a lasting impact.
“I told him I wanted that story,” says Bandeira through a translator. “Not just go there and film it, but that would be something more to the Indigenous people, that would see the point of view from both sides.”
Transparency: Showing both sides
Neidinha Bandeira (an environmental activist) bathes at the Amazon river.
Alex Pritz—Amazon Land Documentary
Bandeira serves as the gateway to facilitate access to Uru-euwau-wau. She knew she was in the right place to tell the story. Territory team, she connected them with Bitatè Uru-eu-wau-wau, 22, the new president of the Jupaú Association, an Indigenous leadership body that engages with the government. (Members use Uru-euwau-wau as their last names.
The activist and the Jupaú president visited New York City for the New York premiere of the documentary on Wednesday and sat for an interview (through the translator Adélia Ramos de Almeida) in the lobby of an Upper West Side hotel. Bitatè rested his cocar, a circular feathered headdress, on the coffee table.
“There were several journalists,” he says of those coming to his community. “Nothing would come back. The community would not accept you back. And we trusted Alex to see if this would be different.”
It was quite different. The film—full of vivid, sweeping shots of the forest itself and the life within it—focuses on Bandeira and Bitatè as its central characters, lenses through which to view the battle unfolding in the world’s largest forest. But two other groups are represented as well: the Association of Rio Bonito—a group of farmers at the very edge of the Uru-eu-wau-wau territory—and invaders or so-called “settlers” who illegally squat on Uru-eu-wau-wau land. The idea to include all angles came from Bandeira, Bitatè, and the Uru-eu-wau-wau themselves.
“‘If we want to do something bigger and deeper and more honest, go talk to the people that are committing these acts of violence and destruction, because we’re not the cause of this conflict,’” Pritz, the director, recalls Bandeira and Bitatè telling him early on. “‘Because it does a disservice to those people that are on the frontlines dealing with this messy, convoluted, complex conflict to paint things in terms that are too reductionist or too simplistic.’’
The TerritoryThe team provides enough rope for the invaders and farmers to explain their views. The former group states that the “Brazilian dream” is to own land and to make a living from it. According to the latter, that land does not belong to Indigenous people but it belongs to them.
Pritz said that sometimes he felt the pressure of those with an interest in funding the movie to broaden its scope to cover more people from the Amazon. The team stood firm. “We really wanted to keep a strict fidelity to this community, their own particular cultural nuances, their own particular situation,” Pritz says in a Zoom interview. “That just meant spending a lot of time sitting and listening and talking.”
Take control of your narrative
The invader rode his bike through the forest fire blaze.
Alex Pritz—Amazon Land Documentary
Pritz arrived in the country as a foreign linguist. He wanted to document the language spoken by older generations of Tupi-Kawahiva so that it could be used for teaching purposes. The six villages of the Uru-eu-wau-wau got together to discuss and vote—their consensus was ultimately no. Because the Uru’eu-wauwau were well aware of the potential exploitation that would occur if outsiders had their language recorded, the linguist wasn’t allowed to take their records.
It was important “just to understand how much had been extracted from this community by people that looked like me, behaved culturally like me, had similar ancestry as me,” Pritz says. “And then the flipside of that: how important agency and ownership over their narrative was going to be if we were going to do this together.”
The Uru-euwau-wau had to shoot scenes for the movie in order to exercise this agency. They closed their borders on their land after the COVID-19 outbreak to protect their citizens. There were no journalists allowed to enter or leave. There was such trust that at that moment, the Urueu-wauwau asked for more equipment so that they could finish filming.
“This is the first time that a movie made inside the Indigenous land brings resources to the Indigenous land, and I’m talking about financial resources,” Bandeira says. “That’s helping to protect the land. This makes a huge difference in our lives.”
Many of the older members in the village had never seen a movie before the crew arrived. It was a crucial conversation that led to the important question: What is involved in making a movie? Together, they discussed both the costs—time, privacy, trust—and the benefits—like the agency to control their own narrative and an impact campaign set up by the filmmakers.
To make a lasting impression
Bitatè, the young leader of the Indigenous Uru-eu-wau-wau, swims in a river near his village in the Amazon rainforest.
Alex Pritz—Amazon Land Documentary
Marianna Olinger, the film’s impact producer, has been spearheading efforts to help build a multimedia and cultural center in the Uru-eu-wau-wau territory using both traditional architecture and modern designs. The center will include a production studio, podcasting area, equipment storage, and editing bays—designed for the Uru-eu-wau-wau to keep telling their own stories.
Although the threat of deforestation persists, the Uru-eu-wau-wau have taken matters into their own hands, establishing a highly specialized security and vigilance team—showcased in action toward the end of the film—that uses technology like cameras and drones to document illegal infringement on Indigenous land. Bitatè, for his part, will become the first member of the Uru-eu-wau-wau to attend college this fall, where he will study journalism. According to him, Indigenous people see the world differently than other people. He hopes The TerritoryReimagines the perception of Native Americans.
“To see the reality, I think, about the Indigenous people. To see our work, our threats, and also see how us Indigenous people look at nature,” Bitatè says. “And also that they are able to see the reality of Indigenous people—not only people here in the United States, but also in Brazil.”
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