Back Forty: The fight for a way of life in the Amazon rainforest

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By Flávia Milhorance

A logger grabs a chainsaw and fiercely cuts down a tall tree. Not far away, Indigenous children run and laugh amid the immersive sounds of the forest. These two scenes of vastly different engagement with the same environment are behind the constant struggle to live and thrive in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. They introduce The Territory, a new documentary that portrays the fight of the environmental activist Neidinha Suruí, who heads the Kanindé Association, which defends the rights of Indigenous peoples in the rainforest, and the Uru-eu-wau-wau people against the farmers and cattle ranchers who claim the land they depend on.

In his feature film directorial debut, Alex Pritz, who spent nearly four years reporting on the ground in the Amazon, captured the escalating violence against the remaining 183 Uru-eu-wau-wau people, notably after the 2018 elections. Since taking office, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has loosened environmental enforcement and, according to Pritz, empowered settlers to destroy the Amazon ecosystem. 

This interview with Pritz has been edited for length and clarity.

What made you focus on the Amazon, and, more specifically, on the territory where the Uru-eu-wau-wau live? 

I was really moved by how passionate Neidinha was in her defense of the rainforest and of the Uru-eu-wau-wau people, especially in a part of the world where so few people were supporting her. In Rondônia, 78 percent of people voted for Bolsonaro in the 2018 elections. So here’s this 60-year-old woman who’s been doing this work proudly and boldly for the past 40-plus years. 

Originally, the story was going to be more about land defenders in general. Neidinha said, ‘If you want to tell this story in a bigger way, you’ve got to include the Indigenous perspective, these people have been here for generations.’ She also pushed me in the other direction and said, ‘Let’s think about talking to the other side and the people that are creating this conflict.’

The environmental activist and the Uru-eu-wau-wau are the protagonists, but you also present the perspectives of the ranchers and loggers. What struck you about their actions and the way they talk about what they’re doing?

One thing that surprised me was the similarity between the way that they spoke about the land and their right to it with the discourse of the American West: the land is empty until a settler or a white colonial power comes in and claims it, maps it. Only then does it become inhabited. But that was a lie in America. That’s a lie in Brazil. There are people there. It’s a really rich environment with its own history and culture.

At the same time, these poor, disenfranchised, desperate farmers were not waking up and saying, ‘Let’s go burn the rainforest because I hate nature.’ These people are victims of climate change the same as anybody else. The warming planet means that their land is less fertile. So I wanted to try to understand their motivations. In the end, if there is a villain in this story, it sits somewhere higher than these people. It also felt that painting it too black and white, heroes and villains, would do a disservice to Neidinha and Bitaté [the teenage leader of the Uru-eu-wau-wau], and their ability to engage with this complicated, messy human problem, and to design solutions to this conflict. 

You started filming before Bolsonaro’s election in 2018. How much did his rhetoric affect the narrative of those ranchers?

The first invasion came 10 days after Bolsonaro took office, really quickly. There hadn’t been time to change any major laws, but the sense from these farmers and ranchers was that their guy was in power, so they were gonna go take the land. We saw people just flooding into the territory, not even thinking it was an invasion, thinking it was just them claiming their land because it had been liberated somehow. So we wanted to look at the way that the political rhetoric had given these rural populist groups the impression that they could do this with impunity.

You included the Indigenous people not only as characters but as partners in the movie. Could you explain this participatory approach to filmmaking? 

When Neidinha introduced us to the Uru-eu-wau-wau, I realized that this was not going to be a simple, straightforward conversation, because most people in the community had never seen a film before. How do you ask somebody if they want to be part of something if they don’t know what it is? The next time I came to Brazil, we brought small cameras with us and said, ‘Okay, here, you interview me. I will interview you. Here’s how you record. Here’s how you edit.’ That felt like the only responsible way to start the conversation around consent and narrative power, especially for a community that has been so marginalized and stigmatized in the media in general. But at that point, it was just participatory, nothing beyond that. 

At the same time, we saw Bitaté harnessing technology and media as really powerful tools. That was the defining characteristic of Bitaté’s leadership and his growth as this teenage leader. When Covid happened, Bitaté said, ‘Okay, nobody comes into our community, and that includes you, Alex.’ Then it became obvious to say, ‘Bitaté, do you feel like you guys can take over shooting this? You’re already using cameras, drones, GPS walkie-talkies.’ So we began treating the community as production partners, rather than just production participants. 

When you were producing the film, the Brazilian Indigenous expert Bruno Araújo and British journalist Dom Phillips were murdered in the Brazilian Amazon. How did their deaths affect you? You were doing similar work, after all.

When Dom and Bruno were murdered, we had finished shooting. So we were no longer out in the field. For us, the murder of Ari [a character in the film] was really what shocked the whole team the most, and we questioned whether it was responsible to keep working on this — everything came into question at that point. Eventually, it felt really clear that the best way to move through was to use the film as a cry for justice for this community. Bruno and Dom were trying to raise the alarm about this violence against Indigenous people that goes unreported; there’s no visibility into a lot of these areas, not enough reporting at all.

Aside from raising awareness of the violence, what else do you expect this film to accomplish? 

We’re working with the Uru-eu-wau-wau to build a multimedia and cultural center in their territory, so they can continue producing their own films. We’ve helped them produce, direct and shoot a video that they’ve sold to a media outlet. This production facility is going to have an exhibition space, projector, a podcast studio and editing suites. It will enable them to continue advocating for themselves, but also document their culture, language and history. In addition, Bitaté will be the first member of the group to go to university, starting in journalism this fall. So I’m excited to continue to support him. We’re also working on some practical goals, legislatively, in the United States, looking at deforestation-related products that are arriving here.