Back Forty: The Struggle for a Way of Life in the Amazon Rainforest

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By Flavia Milhorance

A lumberjack grabs a chainsaw and fiercely chops down a large tree. Nearby, Indigenous children run and laugh amidst the immersive sounds of the forest. These two very different scenes of engagement with the same environment are the root of the constant struggle to live and thrive in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil. They introduce The territorya new documentary that depicts the struggle of environmental activist Neidinha Suruí, who heads the Kanindé Association, which defends the rights of indigenous peoples in the rainforest, and the Uru-eu-wau-wau people against farmers and herders cattle claiming the land on which they depend.

In his feature film directorial debut, Alex Pritz, who spent nearly four years reporting from the ground in the Amazon, captured the escalating violence against the remaining 183 Uru-eu-wau-wau , especially after the 2018 elections. Since taking office, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has relaxed environmental law enforcement and, according to Pritz, empowered settlers to destroy the Amazon ecosystem.

This interview with Pritz has been edited for length and clarity.

What prompted you to focus on the Amazon, and more specifically on the territory where the Uru-eu-wau-wau live?

I was truly touched by Neidinha’s passion in her defense of the rainforest and the Uru-eu-wau-wau people, especially in a part of the world where so few people supported her. In Rondônia, 78% of people voted for Bolsonaro in the 2018 elections. Here is this 60-year-old woman who has been doing this job with pride and audacity for more than 40 years.

Originally, the story was going to be more about land defenders in general. Neidinha said, “If you want to tell this story more broadly, you have to include the Indigenous perspective, these people have been here for generations.” She also pushed me the other way and said, “Let’s think about talking to the other side and the people who are creating this conflict.

The environmental activist and the Uru-eu-wau-wau are the protagonists, but you also present the viewpoints of herders and loggers. What struck you about their actions and the way they talk about what they do?

One thing that surprised me was the similarity between the way they talked about the land and their right to it with the discourse of the American West: the land is empty until a settler or a white colonial power arrives and claims it, mapping . Only then does it become inhabited. But it was a lie in America. It’s a lie in Brazil. There are people there. It is a very rich environment with its own history and culture.

At the same time, these poor, disenfranchised, desperate farmers weren’t waking up saying, “Let’s go burn the rainforest because I hate nature.” These people are victims of climate change just like anyone else. Global warming means their land is less fertile. So I wanted to try to understand their motivations. Ultimately, if there’s a villain in this story, he sits somewhere higher than these people. He also felt that painting him too much in black and white, heroes and villains, would do Neidinha and Bitaté a disservice. [the teenage leader of the Uru-eu-wau-wau]and their ability to tackle this complicated and messy human problem, and to devise solutions to this conflict.

You started filming before Bolsonaro was elected in 2018. How did his rhetoric affect the narrative of these ranchers?

The first invasion came 10 days after Bolsonaro took office, very quickly. There hadn’t been time to change major laws, but the feeling among these farmers and ranchers was that their guy was in power, so they were going to take the land. We saw people flooding into the territory, not even thinking it was an invasion, thinking it was just them reclaiming their land because it had somehow been liberated. other. So we wanted to examine how political rhetoric made these rural populist groups feel like they could do so with impunity.

You included indigenous peoples not just as characters but as partners in the film. Could you explain this participatory approach to cinema?

When Neidinha introduced us to the Uru-eu-wau-wau, I realized it wasn’t going to be a straight forward conversation, as most people in the community had never seen a movie before. How do you ask someone if they want to be part of something if they don’t know what it is? The next time I came to Brazil, we brought little cameras with us and said, ‘Okay, here you are interviewing me. I will interview you. This is how you save. This is how you edit.’ It seemed like the only responsible way to start the conversation about consent and narrative power, especially for a community that has been so marginalized and stigmatized in mainstream media. But at that time, it was just participatory, nothing beyond that.

At the same time, we have seen Bitaté harness technology and media as truly powerful tools. This was the defining characteristic of Bitaté’s leadership and his growth as a teenage leader. When Covid arrived, Bitaté said, “Okay, no one is coming to our community, and that includes you, Alex.” Then it became obvious to say, ‘Bitaté, do you feel capable of taking on the filming? You already use cameras, drones, GPS walkie-talkies. So we started to treat the community as production partners, rather than just production participants.

When you were producing the film, Brazilian indigenous expert Bruno Araújo and British journalist Dom Phillips were murdered in the Brazilian Amazon. How did their death affect you? You were doing similar work, after all.

When Dom and Bruno were murdered, we were done shooting. So we were no longer in the field. For us, Ari’s murder [a character in the film] was really what shocked the whole team the most, and we wondered if he was responsible for continuing to work on it – everything was called into question at that time. Eventually, it became very clear that the best way to pass was to use the film as a cry for justice for this community. Bruno and Dom were trying to sound the alarm about this violence against Indigenous peoples that goes unreported; there is no visibility in many of these areas, not enough reporting at all.

In addition to raising awareness of violence, what else do you expect from this film?

We are working with the Uru-eu-wau-wau to build a multimedia and cultural center on their territory, so that they can continue to produce their own films. We helped them produce, direct and shoot a video that they sold to media. This production facility will have exhibition space, a projector, a podcast studio and editing suites. This will allow them to continue to defend themselves, but also to document their culture, their language and their history. In addition, Bitaté will be the first member of the group to go to university, starting in journalism this fall. So I’m delighted to continue supporting him. We’re also working on practical goals, legislatively, in the United States, looking at deforestation-related products coming here.

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