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Interview: Alex Pritz Discusses ‘The Territory’ and Protecting the Amazon

We’ve long heard the Amazon rainforest referred to as the lungs of the earth, but that designation is under threat for myriad reasons in our modern world. In his award-winning documentary The Territory, Alex Pritz captures this urgent struggle facing the Amazon and its Indigenous peoples, as invaders encroach on their land. In anticipation of the film’s theatrical release, Awards Radar spoke with Pritz about working with the Uru-eu-wau-wau, the sociopolitical context and the unexpected liberation of handing over narrative control in the wake of COVID-19.

Shane Slater: What made you become invested in this story to make it your first feature?

Alex Pritz: It was really one step at a time. I mean, I didn’t come into this thinking, “Oh, this is going to be my debut feature. Here’s the story that’s going to carry me through the next four years.” It was just tugging at a thread, you know? I reached out to Neidinha. I was really inspired by her work and thought maybe there’s a story here. Let’s go down and meet her. I thought maybe it’s a short film at the start. And then things just started happening really quickly. And I realized it was going to be a much bigger story. But I didn’t have a grand master plan, I guess. It was really just that kind of journalistic talking about a thread and seeing where it goes. One foot in front of the other.

SS: This community has a tense relationship with outsiders. What were some of your initial interactions like with them?

AP: Tense as well, for sure. Tense, suspicious, guarded. I mean, this is a community that has had so much taken from them by people that look like me. That culturally, behave like me in many ways. And so there was a lot of suspicion, and rightly so I think. It’s a good instinct to have. And I give one kind of anecdote that, for me was really eye opening. It was one of the first meetings that we had, where we were really talking about film and what film is. And whether they would be interested in a film. And there was a linguist there, who was visiting the community from UC Berkeley, and he was trying to help create a written dictionary for the community, the language that the elders speak is spoken by in the low 1000s of people left on earth.

So, you know, good idea. We’ll write it down. And then it can be taught in schools and preserve language, preserve the culture. But everything happens by consensus in this group. So if you want to create a dictionary, you get representatives from each of the six villages to come and sit and talk together for days sometimes. And everybody has to feel good about it before you move forwards. And in this discussion that I was listening into, the elders were like, “Hell, no, you’re not writing our language down. Like Absolutely not, we know what happens when people like you write stuff down, then you own it. And we’re gonna have to pay to speak our own language. And we can’t afford that.”

For me, that was just like this really powerful realization that so much had been taken from this community. That’s something I view as intrinsic. You can’t commodify language necessarily. But that idea of ownership was going to be really important going forwards in this film. Ownership over the story, ownership over their narrative, ownership over the film itself. And all of that was gonna have to be really baked into these conversations about why we were doing this, who we were doing this for, and all of the above.

SS: One of the most fascinating things for me while I was watching, is the perspective of the small farmers who are invading. Obviously, what they’re doing is wrong and it’s repeating colonial attitudes. But at the same time, there’s a sense of empathy. What was your perspective on them while you were filming?

AP: We talked to a lot of different farmers and illegal miners and people doing all sorts of destructive things in the Amazon. And I was drawn to these two people Martins and Sergio in particular, because I did feel for them in in many ways. They’re poor, they’re marginalized farmers. Sergio has no land of his own and works all day in the hot sun and doesn’t really have much to show for it. And that’s not a good situation to be in and so I did feel for him.

He’s also really aware of climate change. You think of people on the frontlines of climate change and he is also one of those people. The reason that he thinks he needs to go out and get fresh land as he describes it in these disposable terms, is almost as if land is a thing you can use up. But he says he needs to go get fresh land because of climate change. And because now, you need to use so many fertilizers and pesticides on the land that he can’t afford it. That’s why he needs to go get fertile land from the rainforest. And obviously, he’s very myopic. He doesn’t understand the historical context of what he’s doing. He doesn’t understand the broader ecological context and consequences. But he is a victim of these same forces that are plundering the rainforest for the Indigenous communities as well.

SS: The film makes reference to the Bolsonaro regime. Did you get a sense from them that his policies were significantly exacerbating the situation? Or is this something that has really been steadily ongoing for a while?

AP: Well, I’m not Indigenous, so I can’t speak to their personal experience of the last 500 years of colonialism. But I think from what I saw, in my perspective, these are issues that are built into the Brazilian state in some ways. It’s a colonial state, built on racial capitalism. And it’s in the DNA of the country. Bolsonaro poured gasoline on it and cut the brake cords and made everything a lot more difficult for the people trying to defend the forest. But there’s an election coming up. Whether or not he loses, I think a lot of these problems are going to persist. It’s not going to go away just because Bolsonaro might leave office.

But I think the other thing we saw is the effects his policies. He dismantled some of the agencies that were tasked with protecting Indigenous lives and forests. And at the same time, the way that he’s spoken, his rhetoric really emboldened people. You talk to people who were like, “No, this land is ours now. We own this.” And of course, they don’t legally own it. The Constitution hasn’t changed. None of these boundaries have changed. But they believe that it’s theirs now and that causes them to go out and do all this really destructive stuff, like burning the rainforest. And so, I think speech really matters in these types of cases as well. Aside from policy and everything else.

SS: We see in the film that the COVID-19 pandemic hit while you were filming? What impact did that have on your production?

AP: So many ways! I mean, it’s a big part of the story. We use it as a plot device, you know? This handover of narrative control. And that was really born of the reality that we were living. Bitaté said, “We’re not letting anybody else into our territory. Journalists, documentary filmmakers, Alex, all of you. Nobody’s allowed anymore.” And so we had to have a really frank discussion with everybody. How do we keep filming? Do we have enough footage already? Do we have the story?

Of course, we’re not done. We need to get all this other stuff. So that spawned this whole other chapter of the film that I think opened it up in all of these unexpected, but really cool and credibly exciting ways. So in some ways, it opened up the story and in other ways, it was terrifying and really difficult and added all of these complexities to the ways that we were working. Tons of uncertainty, more cost. In the moment, it felt really scary. But afterwards, looking back, it was one of the more interesting and creatively liberating things that happened.

SS: Did they have any experience with film production? Was it a steep learning curve for them?

AP: It’s a real generational thing. So Bitaté’s grandfather grew up isolated from the rest of Brazilian and society has never seen a feature film in his life. And Bitaté is a kid who’s grown up on the internet. He’s all over Instagram, big on social media. He understands media and the news media landscape and documentary and impact campaigns. All of this, he gets pretty quick.

So that generational divide was there from the very beginning. And that informed the way that we began communicating with the Uru-eu-wau-wau about making a film and whether we would make a film together. Just knowing that the large parts of the community had never seen a feature film before, I brought cameras really early on, and said, “Okay, in order to have an honest and open discussion about whether you guys want to partake in a multi-year project like making a film, first, we’ve got to show how you make a film and what a film is, and what it’s capable of.”

So I brought these really small cameras and held informal workshops. You interview me about my life in New York, I’ll interview you about your life here, and just sort of even the playing field a little bit in terms of those power dynamics. From there, I felt like we laid the foundation. We can have a discussion about consent, whether we’re excited about this. Everybody was excited about it.

And then basically, those seeds that we planted early on, came back full circle with COVID. And we said, okay. You guys already know about filming. And we did all sorts of workshops on WhatsApp and we brought the camera kits to the edge of the village, and we dropped them sanitized, and then we would leave and somebody would come and pick them up. Then we would make these little videos on WhatsApp and say, “Okay, here’s the audio level meter, here’s this, here’s that.”

And then we would take Brazilian films and chop them up and show an establishing shot, how they move the camera through this scene. Here’s an instance of Indigenous people being portrayed in the Brazilian media. How do you guys feel about this? Is there anything wrong with this? Like, what can we do better? And so we just had a ton of conversations about all that stuff and that was really exciting.

SS: Were both the small farmers and the Uru-eu-wau-wau aware that you were also telling the other side of this story? And did they have any inner suspicions about that?

AP: Yeah, the idea to reach out to the farmers really came from Bitaté and Neidinha, who said they had sort of journalism and media fatigue at that point. When I arrived, and especially during the fire season of July, August, September, journalists come down and that’s when all the deforestation numbers come out. And they felt like, we go out and we chaperone these journalists, take them to the deforestation sites, they interview us. Then they all make pretty similar pieces, but for their competing newspapers. And we don’t really see that much happening or changing for us on the ground.

And so we’re gonna do this bigger project and go talk to the people that are lighting fire to the forest. That’s where the source of this conflict is. It’s not with us. You can talk to us all you want, nothing’s gonna change. And I was really interested in that and excited about that, because I didn’t want to make something that felt like a lot of the other films that had come out of this region, especially by outsiders who weren’t Brazilian, or Indigenous. And so I really jumped into that.

It created this weird tightrope that we had to walk as a team where it’s an act of conflict, it’s a war zone in many ways. And we’re filming with both sides of this. So how do we do that in a way that’s honest, you know? Both for ethical reasons, but also for security reasons. Like, if we are caught misrepresenting ourselves at any point, that is by far the most dangerous thing you can do.

So we told everybody we were filming with, you are not the only one in this story we are filming, with multiple perspectives on this issue. We’re not gonna have a narrator. I’m not going to be the camera person on TV, which is what a lot of people are used to there. We’re not just going to come in and only film the parts of your lives that are illegal. You’re going to get to speak for yourself and present your view on this issue in a raw, honest form. But we’re going to present competing viewpoints.

So that was kind of the the social contract we had with everybody involved. And it was difficult at times. Like, I would be filming with the invaders and the farmers and somebody else would be filming with Bitaté during some of the earlier trips. And somebody else might even be filming with the environmental police all in the same kind of area of land. So we would have a security focal point where I wouldn’t tell the other teams where I was, because that could create a situation where they knew too much, or I knew too much about something else and would have to lie. And we never wanted to have to lie. And so we created these kinds of information firewalls, to keep everybody safe.

SS: The film had a really positive response at Sundance and won the Audience Award. Now that it’s going to be seen by more people, what are your hopes for the impact of the film?

AP: Great question. Indigenous people are hands down the best conservationists on Earth. And so I don’t think there should be a single conversation happening about climate change, that doesn’t involve them front and center. And we should all be talking about climate change way more. For me, that’s, that’s a really key part of it. Reframing some of these environmental conversations that we’ve been having to center Indigenous voices and Indigenous knowledge. Often people watch the film and at Q&As, as they say, “Okay, wonderful. How can we help protect these Indigenous people who are doing this work?” And Bitaté will say, “Look, we don’t need protecting. We’re doing the work. We are the ones protecting you from the effects of your own actions.”

So the bigger question is, are you ready to listen? Are the people who are causing these problems and creating demand for these products that fuel deforestation and driving their cars left and right like little fossil fuel ping pong balls, are we the ones that are ready to listen to this message that people like him are trying to deliver? And I think that’s sort of where I hope people end up watching the film.

The Territory is now playing in select theaters.

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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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