The Territory review defender of Amazon land

Watching this gripping documentary shot in the Brazilian Amazon, you wonder if our electoral system could learn a thing or two from the Indigenous Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau people. Voting for a new leader, elders elect 18-year-old Bitaté, a young activist who radiates energy, idealism and intelligence (often while wearing a Harry Potter T-shirt). He doesn’t feel ready for the responsibility: “I’m scared of disappointing people.” (I can think of a politician or two who might benefit from a bit of Bitaté’s introspection).

The stakes could not be higher. The Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau are fighting for their survival, under threat from farmers seizing their land with impunity. According to environmental activist Neidinha Bandeira, protecting the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau is key to saving the Amazon. Their territory is a barrier against deforestation: “Lose them, lose the rainforest.” (Is it any wonder Bitaté is feeling the pressure?) Bandeira is another hero of the film, a battle-hardened activist who is the target of daily death threats. Her biggest fear is thugs coming for her kids. (This actually happens in the film.)

The film’s director Alex Pritz does the job of a mediator here, by also giving us the perspective of the farmers settling illegally on indigenous land. There is Martins, who cuts a path through the forest with his chainsaw, building a cabin on Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau territory. The way he sees it, the Indigenous people are non-productive: “They don’t farm, they don’t create, they just live there.”

The film is grimly depressing in places. I covered my eyes during Google Earth time-lapse sequences showing the pace of deforestation in the Amazon; the violence of it is too much. And yet, there is Bitaté: still a teenager, he’s already a skilled communicator. At an Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau community meeting, voices among the older generation lobby for tooling up to fight the settlers as they did in the past. Bitaté wins the day with his argument that, instead, they should resist using cameras as weapons. He sets up community media and surveillance teams, gathering evidence of settler activity. It’s impossible not to feel a surge of hope watching him in action.

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