Award-winning documentary ‘The Territory’ recounts the struggles and resilience of Indigenous Brazilians

At the award ceremony, Neidinha and team members, among them Bitaté-Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau and Txai Suruí. Photo: Publicity

This article, written by Leanderson Lima, was originally published on Amazônia Real's website on January 11, 2024.  It is republished here under a partnership agreement with Global Voices, with edits.

The story of Bitaté-Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau and Ivaneide Bandeira, known as Neidinha Suruí, and their fight against deforestation in the Amazon, told in the documentary “The Territory,” gained international recognition, and now an Emmy Award.

On January 7, the film won in the category Outstanding Achievement in Documentary Filmmaking at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards, which gives awards in technical and special categories to series and programs.

On the stage alongside Neidinha and Bitaté were the Indigenous activist Txai Suruí, the executive producer and Neidinha's daughter, with the American director of the film, Alex Pritz, and other team members.

To receive the prize in Los Angeles, 63-year-old Neidinha endured over 40 hours of travel from her territory in Rondônia state to California.

“When they announced [that we won], we didn't believe it. We were shocked. We couldn't cry because we were in shock,” the Indigenous activist recalled.

The documentary, available for streaming on Disney+, has won several awards since its release. Before the Emmy, it won the Audience and Special Jury awards at the 2023 Sundance Festival.

For Neidinha, the awards served to “burst a bubble”:

É uma vitória da luta da gente, da luta por direitos humanos e pela natureza, pela defesa da floresta contra o desmatamento, é a luta contra o marco temporal. A gente chegou muito longe. A gente vê pessoas dentro do avião conversando sobre o filme, querendo saber sobre a nossa luta. Pessoas que a gente nunca tinha visto falando sobre a nossa causa e comemorando. Às vezes, filmes como esse atingem um nicho, uma bolha, mas ‘O Território’ fez a gente furar a bolha.

It is a victory for our struggle, for the struggle for human rights and for nature, for the defence of the forest against deforestation, it's the fight against the marco temporal [time marker, cut-off date for officially recognizing Indigenous lands]. We've come a long way. [Now] we see people on the plane talking about the film, wanting to know about our struggle. People we had never met talking about our cause and celebrating. Sometimes films like this reach a niche interest, a bubble, but ‘The Territory’ let us burst that bubble.

Among the producers of the film is filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, director of “The Whale” (2022).

Indigenous team

“The Territory” recounts the struggle of the Indigenous Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau people in Rondônia state in northern Brazil to defend the territory against invasions from land grabbers and farmers.

It shows the Indigenous people's apprehension in the face of dangers to the forest and the communities, as well as moments from their daily life in the village. Some of the most powerful moments are scenes with the leader Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, who was murdered in April 2020.

The recordings took place during one of the darkest periods in Brazil's recent history, during the government of Jair Bolsonaro (2019-2022), whose policies were considered anti-Indigenous. He vowed not to recognize any more Indigenous territories during his presidency.

During the Bolsonaro administration, there was a big rise in the number of invasions of Indigenous territories across the country, as well as a dismantling of environmental policies. In Rondônia, where the film is set, Bolsonaro received 70 percent of valid votes in the last election, in 2022, which was won nationally, however, by the incumbent, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

The piece was filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic, which in Brazil alone caused more than 700,000 deaths. As it was not possible to enter Indigenous areas during this period, Indigenous people themselves carried out the filming.

Neidinha told Amazônia Real that the recording equipment was left at the territory's border in plastic bags, and everything was disinfected to avoid risks of disease. The Indigenous people received online guidance on how to use the equipment, as well as receiving instructions on what to film.

“Bitaté [the Indigenous leader] said, ‘Look, we know how to do better than that, so let's do it our way,’” Neidinha remembered.

“The Territory” recounts threats and pressures suffered by the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau Indigenous people who, lacking state assistance, decided to create a group to defend their territory from outside threats.

The story's protagonists are the young Indigenous leader Bitaté-Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau and the activist Neidinha, whom Bitaté considers his second mother. Neidinha recalled that neither she nor Bitaté imagined that the documentary would get this far:

O Bitaté me disse certa vez: ‘Mãe, eu achava que o povo nem ia nos assistir. Achei que não ia dar em nada o nosso filme’. A gente achava que seria só mais um documentário, que para nós seria importante, mas talvez não para o resto do mundo. E foi legal porque a National Geographic comprou o filme e a gente ficou de cara [espantados]. Andamos por vários países apresentando o documentário, palestrando, falando sobre a causa indígena, em pleno período Bolsonaro e de pandemia.

Bitaté once told me: ‘Mum, I didn't think people would even watch us. I didn't think our film would come to anything.’ We thought it would be just another documentary, that for us it would be important, but maybe not for the rest of the world. And it was great because National Geographic bought the film and we were amazed. We travelled around several countries presenting the documentary, giving lectures, talking about the Indigenous cause, in the middle of the Bolsonaro period and the pandemic.


Txai Suruí, her daughter and an energetic activist in Indigenous movements, wrote in an Instagram post that the Emmy win was the “celebration and recognition of the voices and narratives defending the territories, [and of] the resistance and struggle that permeates the lives of Brazil’s Indigenous peoples”.

The film's director, Alex Pritz, also commented on the Emmy win, to the outlet Deadline:

To receive the recognition of our peers, alongside such an incredible group of nominees, is an unbelievable honour. We share this award with communities around the world who are standing up in defence of our planet’s continued habitability and fighting for a better future.

Bitaté-Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau also posted on Instagram:

Ganhamos, meu povo merece, principalmente minha comunidade, meu povo Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, minha associação de Paú, trabalho que não é só meu, é nosso! Estou muito feliz por isso, representando minhas lideranças e é isso. Vencemos e tem mais por vir futuramente.

We won, my people deserve it, especially my community, my Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau people, my Pau Association, [and] the work is not only mine, it's ours! I'm very happy about it, representing my leadership, and that's it. We won and there is more to come in the future

Being the son of a mother from the Juma people and a father from the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau people, Bitaté goes between two territories, one in Rondônia and the other in Amazonas state. He is the grandson of Aruká Juma, one of the last of his ethnic group. He became the leader of his people at a young age. In 2021, as a member of the Indigenous group that was part of the Jovens Cidadãos (Young Citizens) blog, he wrote about his relationship with his grandparents.

Jovens Cidadãos is a project created by Amazônia Real, started in 2018, which led to a section on the outlet's website, in which the young leaders themselves recounted their stories.

Inspiration for life

Neidinha is one of the founders of the Kanindé Association for Ethno-environmental Defence, one of Brazil's most well-recognized organizations working for Indigenous peoples’ rights. She was born in Acre state and arrived in Rondônia at about six months old. The move came about because her father began working in a rubber plantation inside what is now the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau Indigenous Land, hence the proximity to the Indigenous people of that ethnic group.

She left the territory at the age of 12 to study. Through magazines, she learned about the old American Far West, and says she sees the same kind of things being repeated in Brazil:

Na literatura os indígenas sempre eram mortos e os coronéis eram os ‘heróis’ para o avanço do Oeste, o que para mim é muito parecido com o avanço da colonização do Brasil. O avanço na Amazônia, não é diferente do faroeste americano.

In these stories, the Indigenous people were always killed and the colonels were the ‘heroes’ for having advanced to the West, which for me is very similar to the advance of colonization in Brazil. The advance into the Amazon is no different to the American Far West.

The activist says that the success of “The Territory” brought more work, but also threats. However, she points out that the film does not depict heroes or villains.

Eu não queria um filme onde a gente fosse herói e o outro lado bandido. A gente queria a realidade. O filme consegue ver tanto a pressão em cima do povo indígena quanto a pressão em cima do pobre que é usado, manipulado para grilar terra para o grande ir tomar.

Fortaleceu em mim a certeza que não estou errada na minha luta, porque tem momentos que tu estás tão ameaçado, tão pressionado, que você pensa em maneirar, mas a reação das pessoas em todo o mundo fortaleceu as nossas convicções.

I didn't want a film where we're the hero and the other side is the villain. We wanted the reality. The film manages to see both the pressure on the Indigenous people and also the pressure on the poor people, who are used [and] manipulated to grab land for the powerful to [then] take.
It has strengthened my certainty that I am not wrong in my struggle, because there are moments where you are so threatened, so pressured, that you think about backing off, but the reactions of people around the world have strengthened our convictions.

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