‘The Territory’ Review: Intense Doc Cedes Narrative Control to Its Indigenous Subjects

Alex Pritz’s real-time documentary lets the Uru-eu-wau-wau tribe tell its own story.
The Territory Review: Intense Doc Cedes Narrative Control to Subjects
"The Territory"

Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. NatGeo Documentary Films releases the film in theaters on Friday, August 19.

In Alex Pritz’s “The Territory” — a documentary made in close collaboration with Brazil’s dwindling Uru-eu-wau-wau tribe — the moving image is truth, truth is power, and picking up a camera is an act of reclamation. Set at the explosive intersection of technology, politics, and indigenous persecution, the film is gorgeously and sometimes ingeniously conceived, painting an intimate first-hand portrait of joy, pain, and community, before bursting with rip-roaring intensity as it captures a high-stakes struggle for survival unfolding in the moment. More than just a chronicle of events, however, it’s also a bold statement about the lens through which indigenous peoples are often brought to the silver screen.

Right from the get-go, Pritz skirts the conventions of the documentary, a form defined in the public consciousness by its most banal and straightforward examples. He introduces the story not through interviewed voices and faces, but through the harsh sound design of Peter Albrechtsen, who captures the Amazon rainforest being culled by machines, and through measured, tightly-controlled closeups of the gloved hands responsible. A propulsive electronic score by Katya Mihailova both envelops and intrigues.

Soon after — following animated open credits that frame sprawling deforestation as growling cracks in an immaculate fabric — Pritz presents the stakes of this destruction using a quiet contrast to the opening. He sets his camera near the earth, as a long lens captures insects stepping in and out of a similarly tight range of focus, but he quickly cedes this control, as the camera appears to be yanked off the ground by a group of Uru-eu-wau-wau children traipsing through the forest.

The cut between the two images is barely-disguised — perhaps the camera is still being operated professionally — as is the sleight-of-hand switch to a much shorter lens to capture more of the children’s movement. The result, however, is a sudden and piercing enormity. Not only a visual enormity, as more of the greenery spins into view, but an emotional enormity that speaks to who controls this narrative.

Of course, there is a lingering tension inherent to this claim. Pritz, a white filmmaker, could not possibly cede complete authorship of this film, though various members of the tribe are heavily involved from the outset, including its co-executive producers Tejubi Uru-eu-wau-wau and Tangae Uru-eu-wau-wau, the latter of whom is also Pritz’s co-cinematographer (a third executive producer was credited anonymously). While by no means an uncontacted tribe, the Uru-eu-wau-wau — whose population barely touches two hundred, after numbering in the thousands prior to encroachments in the 1980s — prefer isolation, especially from invaders seeking to build roads and farmland atop their territory. However, they grant Pritz and his team unprecedented access to their story, one which eventually sees a unique aesthetic transition that symbolizes, in its own way, a transition of power, when circumstances lead to the Uru-eu-wau-wau shooting and producing parts of the movie themselves.

In the meantime, Pritz’s presentation still feels respectful and empathetic. A bare-minimum no doubt, but one that departs from the distancing lens with which western cinema has zoologically observed and callously othered indigenous peoples for so long. The film’s Uru-eu-wau-wau subjects exhibit a sense of casual comfort in the camera’s presence — they’re no strangers to technology; another departure from the many un-truths perpetuated by the moving image — and whether Pritz is behind the camera, or whether it’s held by one of the tribespeople, it blends in among them, and captures them up close rather than gawking from afar.

The film’s initial presentation is pristine, a kind of recontextualization and reconciliation between different forms of cinema. Every action and conversation is spontaneous, but its appearance is that of scripted drama, between the film’s widescreen aspect ratio, its high visual contrast, and its evocative shaping of natural light, which wraps its way around everything from frogs to trees to people. It’s a far cry from the more natural, flatly-lit documentarianism which western filmmakers tend to employ as they attempt to capture indigenous reality. This is reality too, but a heightened reality that unearths the glowing poetry of the land, and the Uru-eu-wau-wau’s relationship to it. Eventually, once the film is forced to take on a more naturalistic tone — born from cheaper production value and more basic equipment — it transforms further, in equally unconventional fashion. Rather than an anthropological study, it becomes a verité thriller of sorts, as the Uru-eu-wau-wau turn the lens back on outsiders and disruptors.

The story spans several years, beginning in the lead up to the 2018 election of right wing, anti-indigenous fearmonger Jair Bolsonaro and continuing through the COVID-19 pandemic, but its micro focus generally falls on a small handful of subjects who guide us through either side of the local tension. On one side, there’s Bitaté Uru-eu-wau-wau, a chipper teenage tasked with herculean responsibility of protecting his people, with the help Ari Uru-eu-wau-wau, a slightly older man in charge of surveillance, and Neidinha, a middle-aged activist and outsider who has known them both since they were born. On the other side of the forest border — the side being mercilessly burned and cleared — is the farmer Sergio, who hopes to live his dream by owning his own land, and the opportunistic settler Martin, whose own aspirations involve building a roadway and moving his family to the area. The film follows the latter group just as closely as the former, but rather than interrogating these invaders and drawing out their subdued anti-indigenous sentiments, it simply records their every thought and every self-justification until their masks inevitably slip, and they’re hoisted with their own petards.

A larger, more nebulous enemy looms as well, presented in the form of news clips from the rest of the country that capture the general political climate. These sentiments are embodied on the ground by an anonymous government employee, who appears as a disembodied voice several times over the phone. This Indigenous Affairs agent takes an increasingly noncommittal stance, reflecting the chilling cultural and political shift after the 2018 election, and leaving the Uru-eu-wau-wau largely helpless against invading forces. There’s little to be done about the situation when it’s framed as a case of he-said, she-said — which spurs the tribe into action, forcing them to become amateur filmmakers who attempt to bring the truth to light using handheld cameras and overhead drones.

Their own footage, though it doesn’t take up a large chunk of the film, is uniquely textured, whether capturing the encroaching devastation, or simply the mischievous intimacy shared by their in-group. As comfortable as the Uru-eu-wau-wau seem in Pritz’s presence, and within the gorgeously staged tableaus he uses to turn them into cinematic heroes, there are layers to their experiences and interactions which he does not and cannot reach — a conditional openness, that differs in the presence of outside news cameras chasing ratings, semi-adopted allies seeking to dramatize their story, and their own private home videos or private preparations for battle, as they speak Tupi-Kawahiva rather than Portuguese.

With images that are as powerful as they are unexpected, “The Territory” is a work crafted both by its director Alex Pritz, and by the indigenous community whose story it tells. On one level, that story unfolds on screen, with rural tranquility threatened by violent invasion, and marked by a stark aesthetic shift. However, on another level, its story also unfolds in the unspoken considerations surrounding the images, who controls them, and what that control ultimately means, in the context of liberation from modern colonialism and genocide taking place in the public eye.

Grade: B+

“The Territory” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. 

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