Activism-minded nonfiction about Indigenous peoples can be fraught, even when a creator has the best of intentions. In recent times, Western filmmakers have taken more seriously questions of how to capture the struggles that groups in places like South America face without speaking over or for their subjects or perpetuating variations on the same problematic ethnographic assumptions that have plagued these depictions for so long. That the new documentary The Territory is distributed by the film arm of National Geographic, one of the foremost historical developers and purveyors of that chauvinist ethnographic gaze, could elicit understandable wariness. But in telling the story of the Uru-eu-wau-wau people of the Amazon rainforest, director Alex Pritz and his crew have made what seems like a sincere effort to make them active participants in the film.
The Uru-eu-wau-wau numbered in the thousands upon first contact with the Brazilian government in 1981. Today fewer than 200 remain, and the once-sprawling biome they inhabited is now a 7,000-square-mile block of greenery surrounded by farmland. The film’s production began in 2018, as the presidential election of Jair Bolsonaro loomed. As he came to power and vowed to ramp up deforestation and strip away Indigenous rights, the Uru-eu-wau-wau realized the need to rally and reinforce their community, forming groups to patrol and defend their land, as well as to inform the outside world of what was happening. The film can be seen as an extension of this effort, with multiple Uru-eu-wau-wau credited as part of the crew, particularly working the camera.
Setting aside the possible ethical benefits of this arrangement, the Uru-eu-wau-wau cinematographers each prove to have a remarkable eye. They freely mix handheld POV-like sequences and shots from unusual angles, placing the camera on vantages like felled tree trunks. Born partly out of necessity, as the professional crew was unable to enter the territory for fear of spreading COVID early in the pandemic, giving equipment to the Uru-eu-wau-wau greatly aids in the feeling that they are actively participating in telling their own story.
The film also visits with members of the Association of the Rio Bonito, one of the many farming groups trying to encroach on the Uru-eu-wau-wau’s territory. This decision was not based on any obligation felt toward false “balance” but at the insistence of the Uru-eu-wau-wau, out of the belief that the farmers’ stated motivations would be damning rather than balance out their narrative. Indeed, while some of the farmers are sympathetic (one, middle-aged Sergio, wants some control over his own labor after decades of working the land for the wealthy), their blithe disregard for the Uru-eu-wau-wau’s sovereignty demonstrates that, even if few are openly racist or rapacious, they are still cogs in the same capitalist machine that Bolsonaro has been steering. Without knowing all that went on behind the scenes, it’s not possible for me to say whether The Territory fully succeeds at handling charged subject matter in a more equitable way than many other films of its ilk. But it certainly seems like a step in the right direction.
The Territory opens in select theaters August 19.