Thanks to the pandemic, “The Territory” has become the documentary poster child for how to make a truly collaborative nonfiction film.
When Alex Pritz began filming his Sundance hit in 2018, he wanted to provide an immersive look at the tireless fight of the Amazon’s Indigenous Uru-eu-wau-wau people against the encroaching deforestation brought by Brazilian farmers and illegal settlers. He had no idea that some of the most memorable moments of his film would be documented by a member of the Uru-eu-wau-wau community.
In the first two years of production Pritz witnessed young members of the Uru-eu-wau-wau community acquire their own equipment, including drones and photography cameras to document illegal happenings on their land. While the director was pleasantly surprised by their interest in camera equipment, he did not invite them to help create the visual aesthetic of “The Territory.”
But when territorial incursions brought the added threat of a lethal virus due to COVID, the Indigenous community closed the entrance to everyone — Pritz included. That’s when the director asked members of the community if they wanted to document the final act of the docu by themselves. The answer was a resounding yes.
“With all the technological advances they were making independent of us, it felt really natural to ask,” Pritz said.
Tangãi Uru-eu-wau-wau took over camera duties for Pritz. His footage of the frontline of the land battle are some of film’s most compelling sequences.
“When Alex invited me to work with him in 2020, I was quite surprised and a bit nervous,” Tangãi said. “Before he asked, we were using cell phones and regular cameras. We used that equipment to create evidence. When I was shooting for Alex, I began to realize that there are a lot of tiny details that go into images and pictures.”
While Pritz did give some technical lessons over WhatsApp, he was unable to direct Tangãi in the field. The helmer saw most of Tangãi’s footage weeks, sometimes months, after it had been shot.
Ultimately, Pritz says that he is glad he couldn’t control Tangãi’s camera movements.
“Creatively and technically, you could feel the raw emotion and the immediacy of the way that he was moving the camera, the chaos of what it’s like to be in the forest,” said Pritz. “He captured it in a way that I never could have. So, it became this really nice exchange. The way Tangãi moved the camera with this really fluid, intuitive, organic, handheld camera movements inspired some of the stuff that I shot later for the film.”
Tangãi , who received cinematography credit alongside Pritz, was paid the local rate for his D.P. duties. In exchange for forming their own media team to help make “The Territory,” the Uru-eu-wau-wau community received a production company credit alongside film’s fellow banners including Darren Aronofsky’s Protozoa Pictures and Passion Pictures. All credited production houses share an equal portion of the docu’s profits. While members of the Uru-eu-wau-wau did not have creative control over “The Territory” edit, they are working with Pritz to form a media center with editing bays, a podcast studio and exhibition space for their own work to be shown.
“That came out of conversations with Tangãi and others who said, ‘Look, if we really want to be in control of how our story is told going forward, we need to be more involved in the editing process.’ That’s where a lot of the creative decisions get made,” Pritz said.
“The Territory premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in the World Cinema Documentary Competition, where it won the Special Jury Award for Documentary Craft as well as the World Cinema Documentary Audience Award. The doc aired on the National Geographic Channel on Dec. 1 and began streaming on Disney+ Dec. 2.