The scorched remnants of an Amazon rainforest after a blaze set by farmers tore through the land. Photo by Alex Pritz/Amazon Land Documentary

If you think a documentary about how environmental destruction influences climate change isn’t relevant to your life, you’re wrong.

If you think a documentary about people fighting to save the vanishing, undeniably vital Brazilian rainforest can’t break through your shell of cynical, “I can’t do anything” defeatism, you’re wrong.

Welcome to “The Territory.”

Screening at Space on Friday, this documentary from director Alex Pritz (with production assistance by Darren Aronofsky) sounds, on paper, like the sort of well-meaning film whose irrefutable points are destined to evoke that helpless response we all get when a problem seems too big. The Brazilian rainforest is being stripped to the bare earth, taking with it not only untold plant and animal species and Indigenous cultures, but also its vital climate-regulating function. Current Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (seen being elected on an expansionist, racist, anti-environmental platform during the course of the film) is inflaming anti-Indigenous hatred and violence, neutering agencies dedicated to fighting invasions into protected territory and promising, “There won’t be one inch of Indigenous reserve” under his rule.

Pritz, gaining unprecedented access on all sides of the conflict, shows how the Indigenous Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau people confront the horrifying reality that the outside world under Bolsonaro now sees an open invitation to engage in invasions of their land, chopping and burning the ancient forests as they go. A veteran activist named Neidinha Bandeira, who has worked alongside the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau for decades, is seen weeping silently upon Bolsonaro’s election, yet continuing her often futile quest to get the police to intervene against illegal land-grabbing. On the other side, the director interviews the farmers looking to uproot the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau and set up homesteads in the deforested jungle, using an all-too-apt metaphor of the American Old West (plus the inevitable Bible verses) to justify their actions against the Indigenous residents.

Meanwhile, we also meet two young Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, Ari and Bitaté, who take up the mantle of leadership in finding ways to halt the invasion of their protected land. (Pritz shows a sign proclaiming that status, ominously riddled with bullet holes.) Armed with traditional bows and arrows, elders prepare to go to war, while the just-anointed, 18-year-old leader of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau Bitaté sagely counsels, “If we kill an outsider, they will not kill one of us. They’ll kill all of us.”


Pritz’s film (recently screened as part of this year’s excellent Camden International Film Festival) plays out like a thriller, its pacing and editing rushing the real-life narrative forward toward inevitable confrontation. Midway through the film, a flashpoint appears to have been reached, with the gut-punch of an unexpected death, discovered by the side of an illegally cleared road. With Bolsonaro’s hateful rhetoric announcing open season on both the Brazilian jungle and the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, and various factions of would-be settlers using slash-and-burn tactics, it truly seems as if “The Territory” will turn into a dispiritingly predictable bloodbath.

Featured in “The Territory,” Bitaté, who at 18 was appointed leader of his Indigenous Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau community, has led the efforts to fight back against increasingly aggressive invasions on his protected territory. Photo by Alex Pritz/Amazon Land Documentary

And then it doesn’t, not exactly. The young and thoughtful Bitaté and the courageous Neidinha are shown to be the sort of true leaders the fascistic president of Brazil is not. Bows and arrows are joined by an army of drones and cameras, with Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau patrols capturing both proof of illegal settlement, and, in a thrilling sequence as riveting as any Hollywood film about this issue could re-create, several invaders themselves. With the stalwart Bitaté dispensing cool, nonviolent justice along with masks and hand sanitizer to the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau’s prisoners (COVID, tracked into the interior by invaders, threatens literal genocide), the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau film everything, while Neidinha works to get the footage onto the national news.

It’s a heroic story, and, as such, filled with dangers. At one point, an interview with Neidinha, a single mother, is interrupted by a terrifying phone call announcing that her teenage daughter has been abducted in response to the activist’s work. Speeding home with Pritz’s camera chasing behind, it’s a breathless rush that finds the girl safe and the phone call a cruel hoax. (“Time for some lunch?” the woman asks, laughing through her happy tears, the ordeal just part of another day.) Death threats pile up, however, as the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau’s work continues, especially once their guerrilla media campaign actually makes some headway.

“The Territory” ends with the expected yet still sobering fact that Bolsonaro’s government has seen the destruction of the Brazilian rainforest proceed at its fastest rate in decades, that the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, once numbered in the thousands, consists now of some 180 people, and that the settlers, while momentarily deterred by the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau’s actions, remain determined to carve and burn out the Indigenous lands until none are left. It should be deflating, in the way that all such seemingly insoluble global problems are, especially when the struggles between poor and powerless people are provoked and maintained by the wealthy and powerful.

And yet, “The Territory” is exciting, thought-provoking and even a bit hopeful. Watching people with literally no power and meager resources come together and problem-solve in the face of literally mortal peril is a blueprint for optimism. As the indefatigable Neidinha, floating on her back in a jungle river during a peaceful rainfall, promises in parting, “I don’t know how much time I have, but in the time I have left, I will mess with a lot of people.” That’s the sort of hope I can relate to.

“The Territory” (winner of the World Documentary Audience Award at Sundance and Special Citation for Documentary Craft) is playing at Space, 538 Congress St.,, Portland, at 7 p.m. Friday. Tickets are $7 for Space members (which you really should be) and $9 for everyone else. The film runs a brisk and compelling 85 minutes.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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