How 'The Territory' Handled A Death Dilemma

Director Alex Pritz talks about the film's two most memorable moments and the challenging decision regarding one of them. 

Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau in The Territory
National Geographic Documentary Films

Warning: Spoilers for The Territory.

Alex Pritz’s The Territory contains many memorable moments, but the death of one of its characters is especially significant for how challenging it was to depict. The documentary follows multiple individuals in its story of a protected area of the Amazon rainforest. Among these participants are the Brazilian activist Neidinha Bandeira, the Indigenous leader Bitaté, whose people, the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, reside in that area, and another member of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau named Ari. Midway into the film, Ari goes on a mission to stop some settlers from invading the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau territory. He’s later found dead. The documentary narrativizes the tragedy, which is always an ethical issue, and it uses Ari’s death for its agenda.

When I say issue, that’s not a criticism, just something worth addressing as a dilemma that Pritz and his team dealt with and chose a certain way, neither right nor wrong, to resolve. I also don’t mean agenda in a negative connotation. All documentaries should have an agenda or there’s nothing to them. In this part of my interview with Pritz, he discusses why the film includes Ari’s death, and how. He also talks about one of The Territory‘s other standout sequences, namely the moment when Neidinha Bandeira gets a call from supposed kidnappers and believes her daughter may have been abducted. Fortunately, that one didn’t turn out to be so tragic, but I can’t help but wonder what if that moment went another way.

Alex Pritz On Narrativizing An Unfortunate Situation In The Territory

That’s a great question and one I wish I got more often. It’s true, these are real people, real lives. These are not fictional characters. So I think that it was really important to think about that deeply when we’re deciding how to structure it, how to depict people’s perceptions of this individual who isn’t there to speak for themselves anymore.

I was there for Neidinha and the kidnapping moment. It was relatively early in production. My Portuguese got a lot better over time, over the four years of production, and so I didn’t really even know what was being said on the phone when those people called. It’s sort of muffled, and it came out of nowhere. I was just lucky to be rolling when it did. And it happened pretty quickly. A half an hour, or 40 minutes before it was all resolved.

So, I was just kind of following her, rolling through that whole thing, and afterward, we did go get lunch and decompress and talk about it, and I learned that that happens once a year or so that she gets a call like that. A pretty common occurrence for her. So yeah, it’s a really remarkable look at what the cost of being an activist is in this part of this world. When her kids were young, she had to have armed security escorts bring them to and from school. I mean she is under constant death threats every week now. So really, really dangerous work that she’s doing. Heroic work in that sense, too.

In terms of Ari and depicting him and his life and death. We were close with him; our whole film team knew him personally. And the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau are such a small tightly-knit family that the death of somebody like Ari, who is 32 years old and a teacher in a local indigenous school, just sent shockwaves through the whole community. It’s not one person; it’s a loss for everybody there. So that was really difficult emotionally.

Figuring out how to depict that in the film was really hard too, because the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, as a culture, don’t speak of the dead. They bury somebody with all of their belongings. They don’t keep any memorabilia, any mementos, or any photos; they don’t even mention them by name. It’s just the deceased.

And so the decision to include him in the film involved a lot of long discussions with his family members about the value of having him depicted to the outside world, in a way that might help them in their search for justice and accountability — measured against the pain that they would feel anytime they would see an image of him out in the world. Everyone agreed it was mournful to try to find justice in this sense, but it was definitely a difficult and hard conversation.

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.