The struggle of the Uru-eu-wau-wau people of Brazil to hold on to their property reflects the American West where white settlers and the government claimed ownership of Native American lands. The feature documentary debut of director Alex Pritz embeds the viewer in the heart of the conflict by offering a balanced perspective of the plight by following the 200 indigenous inhabitants of the Amazon landscape and the network of farmers and individuals staking a claim to a section of 7,000 square miles. Filmed over several years, “The Territory” is a captivating watch whose cinematography deserves the theatrical experience.

It would be wonderful to see Tangãi Uru-eu-wau-wau, a teacher and member of the indigenous group of land defenders, Jupaú Surveillance Team, get recognized for his cinematography as he became the principal photographer once the pandemic hit and the collaboration between Pritz and his subjects rose to a new level. Once COVID hit, the Uru-eu-wau-wau closed their territory to outsiders including journalists. However, they had enough equipment on hand, and thanks to the filmmaker, the know-how to use it to document their daily lives.

The documentary introduces us to two key players Neidinha Bandeira, an environmental and human rights activist who spent over four decades working to protect indigenous communities, and Bitaté, an ambitious and intelligent 18-year-old member of the Uru-eu-wau-wau who attended a white school outside of the territory, his education and energy proved to be vital to native elders who elected him president the Jupaú Association.

You may feel like you’re watching another National Geographic doc focused on nature as Pritz’s camera captures the lush greenery of the Amazon rainforest and extraordinary close-ups of its insect inhabitants, but as smoke bellows from inside the Amazonian state of Rondônia, home to the Uru-eu-wau-wau, it’s an ominous sign of trouble in paradise.

Drone footage unveils large areas of barren Amazon land, a result of deforestation, cleared out by land-grabbers, and non-indigenous farmers like 49-year-old Sergio who speaks about the Brazilian dream of owning land and making a living from it. As he works the land, he speaks to Pritz about never seeing Indians where he has built a homestead. Sergio’s story brings an interesting perspective to the dilemma as he views himself as a pioneer, not an invader who is trying to move the country forward, the documentary, however, shows how Sergio’s reality involves escaping poverty and a life of a laborer at the hands of others. Through proper channels, Sergio starts The Association of Rio Bonito to focus on farmers’ rights to the land.

“The Territory” plays more like a thriller directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga than a documentary. Murder, kidnapping, and politics enter the storyline making this a captivating watch elevated by the documentary’s principal subjects whose quandaries are heartfelt for all sides involved. There are no clear answers to the ongoing problem and while we are just observers on the sidelines, one can’t help but feel compassion for the Uru-eu-wau-waua and their adversaries.

(3 ½ stars)

Now showing at the Angelika Film Center & Café (Dallas), Angelika Film Center & Café (Plano), AMC Dine-In (Grapevine), and AMC Dine-In (Mesquite)

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Joe Friar head and shoulders

Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.