What Brazil's Presidential Election Means For 'The Territory'

We talk to The Territory filmmaker Alex Pritz about how Bolsonaro's election inspired the documentary and how his defeat will impact the story going forward.

Motorcycle riding through rainforest on fire in The Territory documentary
National Geographic Documentary Films

For a documentary to be timely often means it won’t be timeless, yet Alex Pritz’s Brazil-focused film The Territory should continue to feel relevant in spite of one of its subjects’ problems being solved. On October 30, 2022, incumbent Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro lost his re-election campaign as Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was voted to lead the country. While the latter, best known as “Lula,” has promised to protect Brazil’s Amazon and put an end to deforestation, The Territory‘s concerns for the land, its people, and its activists will not go away immediately, if at all.

Alex Pritz’s The Territory was released in theaters in August following its award-winning debut at Sundance 2022, and eventually, the documentary will end up streaming on Disney+ via National Geographic Documentary Films. Its multi-year portrayal of activist Neidinha Bandeira, the Amazon’s Ur-eu-wau-wau, and encroaching settlers remain relevant in its advocacy, as well as its character-driven narratives, following the election, as Pritz will surely attest. Below is part of a conversation I had with the filmmaker months before Brazil’s election, ahead of The Territory‘s release, in which we discussed Bolsonaro’s initial influence on the inception of the documentary and what it means for Bolsonaro to lose.

Nonfics: Did the film begin with concern about the election of Bolsonaro in 2018?

Alex Pritz: My specific interest in Neidinha and the state of Rondônia and this stuff began around the time of the elections, but I studied environmental science, and so the future of the Amazon and these really important biomes, for the rest of the world, are something I’ve been thinking about for a while prior.

Nonfics: Did you know about Uru-eu-wau-wau before making The Territory?

Alex Pritz: I had not heard of the Uru-eu-wau-wau before meeting Neidinha. Neidinha was really the conduit through which all the rest of the connections in the film flowed. I just read about her work online and felt really inspired by what she’s doing and the environment she’s doing it in — a super hostile part of the country where in the 2018 elections, 78 percent of the people voted for Bolsonaro. It looks like it’s even higher this year. So she’s in the lion’s den when it comes to these environmental issues; the belly of the beast.

She was doing this loudly and proudly as this 60-year-old woman, and I watched some interviews with her on YouTube and just felt really inspired by what she was doing, and the message she was trying to bring. I reached out to her, and she connected me with Gabe Uchida, our Brazilian producer, and then eventually with the Uru-eu-wau-wau, but it was really through her that all of this started.

Nonfics: Did The Territory also start out being a documentary primarily about her?

Alex Pritz: Yeah, she was the original defender of the rainforest, whom I flew down to Brazil during the elections to go meet. The first invasion that you see on film — when Neidinha rushes down to try to help and she calls the police, but nobody’s able to do anything — that was actually the first time that I met the Uru-eu-wau-wau, as well. In this moment of crisis.

I was just following Neidinha as she carried on with her life. I traveled with her as she went to meet this Indigenous group that was experiencing an invasion. Then afterward we regrouped, and I said, “Okay, can you tell me more about who those people are? What’s their story?” And she said, “Well, come with me, and let’s go back, and we’ll meet them and then start a conversation,” and that’s kind of how all of that began for me. You’re seeing my first time with the Uru-eu-wau-wau during that invasion.

Amazon rainforest on fire in The Territory documentary

Nonfics: Given that leadership in Brazil is no longer on their side, what is the hope for the territory to be preserved?

Alex Pritz: I think there’s definitely hope for these Indigenous territories, and it’s kind of our only hope, in my mind. If the Amazon gets razed, it’s close to game over for the rest of the climate crisis. Huge sea level rise. Millions of people, maybe not in North America but in other countries, are going to die, for sure. So, it’s crucially important that we keep this forest standing.

The Uru-eu-wau-wau is one of the most important parts of that forest and sets a precedent for a lot of other Indigenous territories. It is federally protected at the highest levels. That doesn’t mean it’s enforced, but legally speaking, there’s no higher protection for Indigenous land, and so if that territory gets redrawn or land titles get given out within that territory, it’s setting a really dangerous precedent for all the other protected areas of the rainforest.

That said, the Uru-eu-wau-wau have done an incredible job of preserving this place, and so I think standing behind them and their surveillance efforts, supporting them financially, following them in the media, on their social media — [the Uru-eu-wau-wau leader] Bitaté is on Instagram; there are Uru-eu-wau-wau associations on Instagram. We have a website, TheTerritoryImpact.org where there’s a lot of information on other campaigns being led mostly by Indigenous groups to protect the rainforests.

There are policy levers that work. We’ve seen deforestation go down during certain decades, and we’ve seen it go up in others. And there are ways to enforce the protection of the rainforest, and there are ways to invest in sustainable agroforestry for these types of farmers who might otherwise go out and do this dangerous dirty work of colonizing new land. I think we need the political will to be able to do it. We need other countries that are buying products that come from deforested areas — leather, beef, soy — to look politically at their own supply chains and make sure these aren’t products that are coming from Indigenous lands. But those are all solvable problems, all things we can work on.

Bolsonaro is up for reelection on October 2. We’re releasing the film in September in Brazil, and we’re interested to see how that election goes. It would also be naive to think without Bolsonaro in office these problems are going to go away. These are deeply ingrained ideologies as old as the Brazilian state itself. But yeah, I think there are a lot of good people working on it and I certainly see hope.

The Territory, which has been nominated for three Critics Choice Documentary Awards, will likely be available soon on Disney+. In the meantime, check out more parts of our interview with Alex Pritz here:

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.