‘The Territory’ Review: A Revelatory and Immersive Documentary About the Ongoing Crisis in the Amazon

Documentaries that set out to tackle complex subjects and narratives in a single feature can be tricky to pull off. While there is often a necessity to condense potentially decades of context to fit within a bounded runtime, history is much broader and more expansive than that. What makes The Territory such a stunning and standout work is that it never loses sight of this history that is inexorably intertwined with those living with its repercussions now. A debut feature from director Alex Pritz that won multiple awards at the Sundance Film Festival, it is now getting a release from National Geographic in a moment where it remains as painfully and profoundly relevant as ever. It centers on the Uru-eu-wau-wau Indigenous people and the precarity they face in modern-day Brazil, where the Amazon they have lived in for generations is being decimated. Making matters worse was the election of the far-right nationalist Jair Bolsonaro who has eroded protections for the land and the people that are still living in it.

The documentary grounds itself in this ongoing crisis, revealing in precise detail how it poses an existential threat to both the Uru-eu-wau-wau and the world as a whole due to the devastating impacts this ongoing deforestation has on the climate. The opening text informs us of how this truly began back in the 1980s when the government first made contact with the Indigenous peoples who had remained isolated until that point. This moment had predictably immense consequences that are still being felt now all these decades later as the destruction of what was is continuing to ratchet up unabated. All of the many vibrant and lush details of what remains of this serene world are interwoven throughout all of this, visually communicating just what is being lost as deforestation continues. No one is more aware of this than twenty-year-old Bitaté who we see become a leader that forms a resistance movement to try to stem the tide of destruction. Against long odds and potential annihilation, the documentary becomes as much a portrait of him as it is of the struggle he is facing.

There are plenty of quiet moments where we see him grappling with this responsibility, such as an early discussion where he hears from an elder about how this immense intergenerational struggle for survival will now fall to him. Where the documentary becomes most interesting is when Pritz turns the camera over to the people themselves. While part of this is done out of concerns stemming from the pandemic, it makes for a riveting and quietly revolutionary late act. We get to see them on the ground as they work together to drive off those that want to take the land for themselves. While they can’t be everywhere at once, the documentary places us in their hands and sees how they are doing everything they can to protect the future of their people. It is a battle against colonialism playing out in real-time that Pritz, smartly, makes himself as absent in as possible. He is merely there to bear witness and convey the story of the people themselves to us, showing the reality of their precarious existence. It is an overwhelmingly evocative and emotional experience, reverentially delving into this unseen world just as it continually teeters on the edge of irreversible annihilation.

The key to understanding this comes when the documentary zooms out. It spends a large amount of its time with Neidinha, an activist who has devoted her life to trying to protect the Indigenous groups being threatened. It is a frustrating and even dangerous existence, something Pritz gently unravels by shadowing her on every step of her day. She will go from having to deal with the employees at government agencies supposedly meant to offer support that generally brush her off to then grappling with a death threat made against her children. It fully uncovers the banality and brutality of the work, hitting you with blow after blow until you wonder how anyone could continue to do this. That is when you then realize this is precisely the point: to wear her down. Through stonewalling and intimidation, the hope is that she will eventually give up. The entire structure is built to oppose her and empowers those who will do whatever it takes to get their own piece of the pie. It creates a juxtaposition that shows when all her attempts to work within the system ultimately get shut down, it will fall to the people themselves to find a way to survive. Make no mistake, this is a life or death struggle as we soon see when one of the documentary subjects is murdered. This sends a shock through the film and Pritz doesn’t shy away from it for a second while capturing how the fight continues.

We also are shown rather extended interviews with the illegal invaders of the Amazon themselves, a reminder of just how little they believe they will be held accountable for their actions. Some even form collectives, something they anticipate will give them more credibility, while others just make excursions in and set up shop. Many of them speak about how they feel emboldened and backed by the current government, making the demolition they then take part in all the more horrifying. They do everything from cut down trees with growling chainsaws to set fires that become massive blazes. It is all about clearing a path for themselves and the land they believe they are entitled to. Every moment of this feels shocking, as the wanton destruction is done so openly that you realize just how normalized it is. Pritz does not offer any commentary or repeated cutaways in these moments, instead letting them linger so that we understand the scope of what is taking place. It becomes a work of investigative filmmaking that provides proof of just how widespread the destruction is becoming and how, like the fires being set, it has the capacity to consume everything unless something is done to stop it. All of these sequences are contrasted with both the wide landscape shots and quieter on-the-ground ones, ensuring that the film’s more grand artistic vision remains simultaneously focused on what is being lost in each passing moment.

We also are shown rather extended interviews with the illegal invaders of the Amazon themselves, a reminder of just how little they believe they will be held accountable for their actions. Some even form collectives, something they anticipate will give them more credibility, while others just make excursions in and set up shop. Many of them speak about how they feel emboldened and backed by the current government, making the demolition they then take part in all the more horrifying. They do everything from cut down trees with growling chainsaws to set fires that become massive blazes. It is all about clearing a path for themselves and the land they believe they are entitled to. Every moment of this feels shocking, as the wanton destruction is done so openly that you realize just how normalized it is. Pritz does not offer any commentary or repeated cutaways in these moments, instead letting them linger so that we understand the scope of what is taking place. It becomes a work of investigative filmmaking that provides proof of just how widespread the destruction is becoming and how, like the fires being set, it has the capacity to consume everything unless something is done to stop it. All of these sequences are contrasted with both the wide landscape shots and quieter on-the-ground ones, ensuring that the film’s more grand artistic vision remains simultaneously focused on what is being lost in each passing moment.

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