How COVID-19 Changed The Making Of 'The Territory'

We talk to director Alex Pritz about his collaboration with the Uru-eu-wau-wau in his making of The Territory, especially after COVID-19.

Uru-eu-wau-wau in The Territory
National Geographic Documentary Films

Well into the making of The Territory, Alex Pritz had to let his main subjects, the Uru-eu-wau-wau, take over filming. The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted a lot of film productions, but documentaries, like the lives they share, had to go on. Fortunately, the indigenous people of The Territory had already become more than passive participants. Their interest in continuing to document their attempts to save their dwindling region of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest allowed Pritz to finish his award-winning feature directorial debut. In this final part of our 2022 interview with Pritz, he explains just how much the Uru-eu-wau-wau collaborated on the filming of The Territory.

Nonfics: How present were you in the filming compared to your participants, especially once COVID impacted your travel?

Alex Pritz: What you see in the film when Covid comes in and the community says, “We’re starting our own media team, no more journalists allowed in the territory,” and the lens cap comes off, that’s sort of the beginning of them taking control over the filming and production and management of footage on their end. Bitate, the young leader of the Uru-eu-wau-wau, made that really bold decision to say, “Nobody’s allowed into or out of our territory, including journalists, including the film team, including you, Alex — even though we’re friends, we can’t see you for a while.”

So, we respected that, and we didn’t know when a vaccine was going to come. We didn’t know when it would be safe to reenter, so we had a conversation with Bitate and said, “How do you feel? Are we done with the film? Do we start editing? What’s left to do?”

We had watched Bitate rise to become the leader of these people because of his own interest in the media. He wrote applications to get drones and GPS and all the equipment that you see arriving in the film. That is equipment that he went out and procured himself of his own accord. We had watched all this happen for months and thought maybe Bitate could shoot the last part of the film. We’re definitely missing some scenes, and he was like, “Hell yeah. Give me more cameras; give me better audio equipment, and we got it from here.”

So that was really exciting. We had no idea if it was going to work out or not. But I sort of think of it as they took over the final act of the film. Then we leave them, we leave their story arc in their hands. In terms of percentages, I think we probably had like 800 hours of footage total, and the Uru-eu-wau-wau probably shot 100 to 150 hours of footage that we sorted through. They’re still shooting now. I mean, production has stopped on my end, but they are continuing to film everything that they’re doing themselves, so they’re probably up to 800 hours themselves now or something like that.

Nonfics: Would you just get sent an abundance of footage from them and then have to go through and determine if it was any good?

Alex Pritz: They were shooting a lot of stuff for themselves. That was really interesting to see what they would choose to film for themselves because it’s different from what I, as an outsider, was choosing to notice in terms of what I thought would be a good building block for the story. Every time we got a hard drive from them, it’d be like Christmas morning. We’d open it up and it was like, is it coal or the new bike we all wanted? Some of those scenes were just so exciting. We were glued to the computer screen when we saw them arresting this invader, sanitizing his hands, and burning the invader camp.

I’d shot a lot of surveillance missions myself, but none of the footage I shot compared to the footage that Tangãi, my cinematographer, was shooting. It was so much more urgent. You felt this raw immediacy in his footage that the chaos and the confusion of what it’s like to really be out on patrol were captured so much better through his lens. That was really exciting. There were totally moments where we were like, “I really wish the mic had been plugged in; I wish we had audio,” but I think it was so much better coming from them.

Nonfics: How did you come to include the invaders and farmers as characters in the film?

Alex Pritz: The idea that we would reach out to these farmers and the opposing networks of people invading their land came through conversations with Bitate and Neidinha, who said, “You know, if you want to understand where this violence is really coming from, it’s not us. We are on the receiving end of this conflict. Go out and investigate the people who are committing these acts of destruction.” And I was interested in that, too. I felt like that was a deeper way to tell this story than some of the simplistic black-and-white versions of this story that were often the ones told by outsiders.

Nonfics: How did you gain their trust? Did they realize that you were mostly on the side of the Uru-eu-wau-wau and that they’d then be seen as the villains?

Alex Pritz: I think they feel like the heroes of this story. Even in the way that they’re represented. I showed the scenes of Sergio and the association of farmers to Sergio, and he was like, “Great, you nailed it. Go tell everybody so we can fix this horrible situation; we’re being unfairly persecuted.”

They really see themselves as these virtuous pioneering heroes going out and creating something out of nothing. So the fact that I was willing to film them digging holes in the hot sun, which they consider a major part of their lives, as hard-working family men and poor disenfranchised farmers — that I was willing to show that part of their life alongside the parts of their lives that fall outside of the law earned me some trust with them.

But it was always a tenuous relationship where we would get caught off for a while, then we’d get access again, and we were never really sure how much longer we’d be able to keep filming with them just because they’re so suspicious and just transient, and somebody goes into hiding because the police are after them. It was always a difficult thing to try to find people again when we’d arrive back in Brazil.

Nonfics: How involved were your subjects in the final cut of the movie since you wanted this to be told by them?

Alex Pritz: We would talk about the structure. We talked about kind of character arc-level stuff with Bitate, as well. You know, how’s your life shaping up if you decide to do this — this is how I would likely document it in the film. We showed everybody rough cuts. We didn’t really start editing as we went that much, so we weren’t like cutting scenes that we could show, but as we had stuff we would show it to them.

We didn’t show them footage of the other side as we were going. We didn’t share scenes of the opposing sides of the conflict with each other. Until kind of at the very end of the process when we felt really confident with what they had.

The Territory, which was nominated for three Critics Choice Documentary Awards, is now streaming on Disney+. Check out more parts of our interview with Alex Pritz here:

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.