The Territory: The Old Land, by David Bax
In Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and an anonymous third director’s chilling Indonesian genocide documentary The Act of Killing (which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival almost exactly ten years ago), there’s a shot where one of the perpetrators of the state-sanctioned mass murders is wearing a t-shirt from some American “Frontier Days” celebration. That always struck me as serendipitous; the filmmakers couldn’t have hoped for a more fitting connection between what happened in Indonesia decades ago and what happened in the United States centuries ago. In both cases, a genocide occurred but goes unpunished because the perpetrators remain in power. I thought of that again while watching Alex Pritz‘s The Territory, about native tribes on formerly protected land now threatened by Brazilians staking out and claiming parcels as their own. It’s repulsive to hear one such man look at the wilderness he’s destroying and say, “God willing, in eight months, it will be beautiful.” But these settlers see themselves in the same way early American homesteaders did, as self-starting pioneers. But now, just as it was then, they are actually active participants in genocide.
If you don’t want to, though, you don’t even have to hate the invaders themselves. You can pin all the blame squarely on Jair Bolsonaro, the repugnant right-wing populist who campaigned on eliminating protected lands and whose administration has apparently sought to make destruction of the rainforest its legacy.
Wherever you decide to direct your ire, just know that you’ll feel plenty of it while watching The Territory. The events depicted are so upsetting and infuriating, Pritz doesn’t even really need to be propagandistic, opting instead for close-ups of the beautiful nature and wildlife while occasionally veering into boilerplate contemporary documentary stuff like animated explainers for topics like urban sprawl.
Very little hope is offered by The Territory. It’s not Pritz’s job to dress these things up in a pretty package. This movie is more an act of journalism than cinema. There’s a sense, from the beginning, that Pritz is documenting a war that’s already been lost. One of the first things we learn about the tribe featured here, the Uru-eu-wau-wau people, is that, in the 40 years since they were contacted by the outside world, they’ve gone from thriving to decimated almost to the point of disappearance. Something about seeing them sitting on cheaply manufactured plastic chairs signals a defeat.
They aren’t resigned to that, though. The Territory spends much of its runtime detailing the activists, both within and outside of the tribe, going up against the worst every day. Still, even that is more fraught than inspirational once we realize a more modern similarity between Brazil and the United States. These days, death threats are a daily occurrence in political discourse.