Engines roar, blades are sharpened, recoil starters sputter and whine. The opening of Alex Pritz’s Sundance-winning documentary “The Territory” prepares the audience for a real “Chainsaw Massacre,” one that plays out in the Amazon rainforest. But this film is far more terrifying, and galvanizing, than Tobe Hooper’s ‘70s slasher classic.
The violence is no less upsetting, and at times, watching the film feels like bearing witness to a genocide unfolding in real time. The murders — of old-growth trees on protected indigenous land in Brazil — are sickening to watch; the suspense with which the film unfolds is riveting. Fortunately, there’s also an inspiring hero at the center of the story, who takes up a unique weapon in order to fight the destruction of his people.
The title of the documentary refers to an area of land in the center of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, occupied by the Uru-eu-wau-wau, an indigenous tribe who were first contacted by the Brazilian government in the 1980s; now, less than 200 remain. Though their territory is legally protected and designated indigenous land, farmers — who come to be called “invaders” throughout the film — eat away at the borders, deforesting the Amazon for farmland.
These hard-working farmers with big dreams of working their own land, who would be seen as humble underdogs in any other narrative, become the chainsaw-wielding villains of “The Territory.” It makes for an incredibly complex emotional experience in watching this film. Sergio, the leader of the Rio Bonito farmers’ association, who simply dreams of working his own land and wants to do everything by the book, is as sympathetic as he is wrong.
On the other hand, Martins, a rogue farmer who doesn’t care if he gets thrown in jail, and whom Pritz’s cameras capture setting fire to huge swaths of dense rainforest, is a bit harder to sympathize with. Yet, we still understand his burning desire to stake his claim to his own piece of land, to build himself a home. It’s the same kind of manifest destiny that built America and that, unchecked, will kill the planet; that’s how crucial the ecosystem of the Amazon rainforest is to continuing life on Earth.
It’s hard not to see the lore of the American West in “The Territory,” the pursuit to push farther into the land, to stake a claim, and the willingness to erase indigenous existence. We see Western movie archetypes in our hero, the teenage leader of the Uru-eu-wau-wau, Bitaté, and in seemingly their only ally, a tireless eco-warrior named Neidinha Bandeira. In just 83 minutes, Pritz guides us through a complex story, though at its heart it is a deceptively simple tale of underdogs fighting to protect their land and way of life.
The timeline starts with the 2018 election of Jair Bolsonaro, who promises to eradicate all indigenous ownership of the territory, as well as a firearm in every house. His fiery conservative rhetoric erodes political protection and alliances for the Uru-eu-wau-wau, including from the Indigenous Resource Office, who take a hands-off approach.
In the wake of a traumatic loss for the Uru-eu-wau-wau, with invaders encroaching, Bitaté, at 18 years old, is selected by the elders to lead the tribe. He wants to fight back, and he does what any member of Gen Z might: He picks up a camera.
At this moment, “The Territory” becomes a film about filmmaking itself, as the Uru-eu-wau-wau utilize technology not only to document and capture their invaders, but to share their plight with the world. Just as they smear warpaint and ready their bows and arrows, they ready the devices that will not only capture proof of the invasion but also broadcast it far beyond the reaches of the territory. It is the intersection of the technological and the sacred, the nature and the machine — forest protectors armed with digital cameras, drones, and mapping devices.
There’s also an incredibly meta aspect to the larger idea of the role of the filmmaker, when you consider the difference between Bitaté’s crew patrolling the forest and making citizen’s arrests, burning down camps. Their intervention as indigenous activists is juxtaposed with the hands-off approach of a documentarian or photojournalist, who is simply there to capture the images, their activism inherent in the documentation and sharing of information.
There’s a moment when Martins and his crew set the forest ablaze that’s deeply upsetting and frustrating, and a feeling of helplessness in the mere observation of it all. The Uru-eu-wau-wau’s use of movie and image-making injects some necessary agency back into the process. (Much of their footage is also used in the film.)
Pritz highlights the use of this technology in fascinating and subtle ways: drones are used not for sweeping, stylish aerial shots, but literally to gather information on deforestation, their clumsy movements serving a purely utilitarian function. A large animated map of the territory shows the snaking hand-cut roads and patches of farmland that march forward inexorably, and it serves a crucial storytelling and emotional purpose in the film.
While the statistics at the end of “The Territory” are sobering, the invigorating energy of Bitaté and the Uru-eu-wau-wau serves as an invitation to join their fight, to become their ally. It is indeed harrowing to watch — to bear witness — and while the film is inevitably heavy with existential dread, Pritz delivers an emotionally engaging story filled with heart, heroes, and a bit of hope to hold onto. There is no more urgent film that demands your attention this year.
“The Territory” premieres Dec. 1 on National Geographic Channel and Dec. 2 on Disney+.