For young Bitate Uru Eu Wau Wau, the distant chatter of a saw sends an ominous signal. It is the sound of his people’s land in the Brazilian rainforest being chewed up by illegal invaders.
The Oscar-nominated documentary Terrain, directed by Alex Pritz, shows how Bitaté and members of his indigenous tribe, the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, try to fend off the loggers, miners and squatters that are devouring vast tracts of the Amazon. Among their only means of defense is media attention to their plight. Without it, their territory will continue to disappear.
Bitaté spoke to us through an interpreter from an Uru village in the Brazilian state of Rondônia.
DEADLINE: What was it like for you to be the star of an Oscar-contending documentary that has been shown around the world?
BITATE URU WAU WAU: I feel honored. It brings to the fore the struggle of my people. It shows the world the situation in which we live. We know that the challenge we face — which we have always faced in our territory — is now represented in the world beyond Brazil. People are talking about it. So, I feel really good about that.
DEADLINE: When you were first approached by filmmakers about making a documentary, what were your thoughts? And how did you convince yourself that they would tell your story along with the story of the Uru in a way that would do you justice?
BITATE: At first, it was a big thing for us to digest: Americans are coming — what do they want to do here? During the decades of colonization, we learned to worry a lot about it. And we wanted to know what they want from us? So we had a series of conversations, three meetings where we talked with Alex [Pritz]with producer Gabriel [Uchida], and our community. And then we decided, let’s see what happens as we go along with it.
We began to understand that it was an opportunity for us to show our culture and the work we do. I was able to overcome the resistance from my own community, from my people… We thought a lot about how we can show the reality of our people and this territory. Terrain does a good job of representing who the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau people are.
DEADLINE: Can you describe the emotions you feel when you see parts of Uros territory being consumed by these outsiders — the miners, the loggers, the illegal settlers?
BITATE: Sorry. We feel very sad. We see people coming to tear down all our forests that we have fought to protect… We know [invaders] they will come in and kill our territory. They will burn it. They will take the lumber out of it. And that makes us very sad as indigenous people. We have fought so hard to protect our territory, to keep it in good condition. So it is sad to see our home being deforested as it is. It’s very sad.
DEADLINE: Pritz told us Uros urged him and his film crew to seek out the land grabbers to interview them as well. Why was this important to you?
BITATE: We thought it was important to know how the other side is thinking, what’s going through their mind… These are issues that we live with every day, and these are the things that happen. And we want it to be called that.
DEADLINE: You and other members of Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau became part of the filmmaking process, learning to use cameras and drones. How was that?
BITATE: At first, we thought we’d do some shooting for them, but they’re not going to use it. And then we got more and more feedback from them and started improving our skills. And we understood that this is on behalf of all indigenous communities, all indigenous peoples. So it was important for us to take on the challenge of learning the technology. Technology, as I always say, is our weapon in today’s world. It was important for us to learn all the different aspects of technology so that we could advance the knowledge of the struggle we have here and the reality we live in.
DEADLINE: How much have you learned about filmmaking in the last few years of your production life Terrain?
BITATE: I think I learned a lot. I was already a photographer. I have always loved taking pictures and Tangãi [Uru Eu Wau Wau] he’s also grown a lot in filmmaking, and he films a lot across our territory, and that’s helped us both grow. I have seen a big increase in my confidence in doing this kind of work. And I am so confident that I can teach others to do it. I want to show younger people how to record, how a camera works and how to use drones as well. We’re doing some good drone footage so my confidence is building. I feel empowered in this.
DEADLINE: How much difference does it make for you and Uru to be able to tell your own story with video instead of relying on outsiders?
BITATE: Moving forward, I believe we can now tell our own story without needing other people. We have the equipment to do it. We have enough people to tell the story. At first we didn’t know for sure. We didn’t think we could fit the bill. We thought we’d have a little place and give some tips on this and that. But today, I say, no, our people can do this job without needing foreigners. Alex and his team have been instrumental in equipping us so that we can continue to grow. And I am very happy to know that we will be able to create the next narrative for our people and our history. I envision things I can do with my people. We now know what it means to have a central role in a production. I think we can do it ourselves now.
DEADLINE: How optimistic or pessimistic are you about the future of Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau?
BITATE: A little bit of both — optimistic and pessimistic. Especially with these invasions we have mixed feelings. But I think maybe in the last four years, I’ve become more optimistic. With the next four years, we have this new government [under Brazilian President Lula da Silva]. we have [the Brazilian government agency] FUNAI, the National Foundation for Indians, [which] he is very pro-indigenous. I will remain optimistic for now. But I will always be a bit ambivalent about it, feeling pessimistic and optimistic at different times. We live on a reservation, and we have these invasions. Therefore, we have to balance both these feelings.
DEADLINE: I understand the Uru are building an audio-visual center to promote the study of filmmaking.
BITATE: We hope that by February it will be ready for use… We hope that not only our people but also other indigenous communities will be able to come in and benefit from it… people from other [Brazilian] states, from other places, can come here to learn about our territory and learn something about filmmaking. We feel very grateful for all that is being done. There are very few people who have the visibility of this Terrain treats us. If we can use Terrain as a documentary that communicates its condition [the Uru]we want more and more of our people to have this opportunity.
DEADLINE: What can people do to support you and Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau?
BITATE: We want to expose people to our reality so that our people can then see improvements in the lives we live here. the situations we face. I also think it’s important to get the word out about the documentary so people watch it and join the impact campaign on our website. This is a way that they can go to the site and support and support us and raise awareness of all that we do. We also call on the Brazilian government to protect all our regions and communities. We need help not only here in my community, but in all of our indigenous areas.