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'The Territory' and 'Three Minutes: A Lengthening' find cinematic hope in tragedy

Jewish townspeople of the village of Nasielsk, Poland in 1938.
Family Affair Films, US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Jewish townspeople of the village of Nasielsk, Poland in 1938.

If the pandemic has taught Hollywood anything, it's that storytelling finds a way. Witness two new documentaries in which first-time directors not only deal with memory and loss but also embed them in cameras and images.

The Territory, Alex Pritz's look at a threatened Indigenous community in Brazil shows how cameras can be weapons.

Three Minutes: A Lengthening, Bianca Stigter's striking exercise in cinematic forensics reinvents form — turning three minutes and 33 seconds of pre-WWII vacation footage into a 69-minute detective story.

Lengthening 'Three Minutes'

Stigter begins by playing all of her footage — every second — accompanied only by the sound of a shutter clicking in a projector. We see people milling in a public square, children laughing as they crowd toward the cameraman and then scooting across cobblestones to stay in the frame as he turns. One boy in a cap playfully pretends to strangle the girl standing next to him. Worshipers emerge from a synagogue. A family dines in a restaurant as kids peer in the window.

It's all remarkable for not being first.

"These three minutes of life were taken out of the flow of time by David Kurtz in 1938," says narrator Helena Bonham Carter. "His grandson, Glenn Kurtz, discovered them in 2009 in a closet in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida."

But with no markings, nothing to indicate where the footage was shot, Kurtz was initially at a loss as to what he was viewing. If you don't see the Eiffel Tower, he thought, how do you know you're in Paris?

His relatives guessed the images might have come from his grandmother's hometown near the Polish-Ukrainian border, but it turned out to be his grandfather's birthplace, the Polish town of Nasielsk, about 30 miles north of Warsaw. Nasielsk had 7,000 residents in 1938, of whom 3,000 were Jewish. Only about 100 survived the Holocaust.

Finding a grandfather as an apple-cheeked lad of 13

As the shots were clearly from the Jewish quarter, Kurtz donated the film to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., which had it digitized and placed for public viewing on its website. And as Kurtz kept searching for clues to the identities of the people on screen — deciphering grocery store signs, hints from clothing — he was contacted by a woman who recognized her grandfather, Maurice Chandler, in an apple-cheeked lad of 13. And he recognized others in the crowd – a pal from yeshiva...another boy his mother wouldn't let him play with.

Working from Glenn Kurtz's book Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film, Stigter (who is married to 12 Years A Slave director Steve McQueen) never reaches for visuals outside the original footage. But she finds fresh fascination in those images every time she revisits them — fragmenting and replaying moments, zooming in to examine faces, or to highlight interactions.

Or at one point, to note the buttons on coats and dresses, which occasions Chandler's liveliest childhood story, as well as the narrator's observation that those buttons were likely made in the town's button factory, which was repurposed by the Nazis a few years later.

It's a fascinating, and exhaustive — but never exhausting — exercise in cinematic forensics. How much can we learn from images? Time of day? Yes. Location? Sure. Social class? Absolutely. But state of mind?

"That smile," growls Chandler as he looks at his beaming 13-year-old self. "I must've been happy or something. If somebody'd told me what, a couple of years later, I was gonna have to do, I wouldn't believe it probably."

A narrative of discovery, an exploration of memory, a meditation on loss and cinema, all in a lengthening of three minutes.

Eerie echoes in 'The Territory'

It may not seem likely, but there are eerie echoes of many of those same elements in The Territory: marginalized people all but exterminated, their world laid waste, and a sense of loss amid possibility. All captured by cameras that can freeze moments for posterity, but that director Alex Pritz suggests can maybe do more than that.

Bitaté swims in a river near his village in the Amazon rainforest.
/ Alex Pritz/Amazon Land Documentary
Alex Pritz/Amazon Land Documentary
Bitaté swims in a river near his village in the Amazon rainforest.

The film begins in 2018, with an Indigenous community's struggle to protect what Pritz calls their "island of rainforest surrounded by farms."

"In the 1980s," reads an opening title, "the Brazilian government first contacted the Uru-eu-wau-wau people. From a population of thousands fewer than 200 remain."

Bitaté, a clear-eyed teen activist, is among them, swimming in a tributary, romping with other kids, and working with Neidinha, a middle-aged non-Indigenous activist he refers to as a second mother, to combat a national government that seems hellbent on destroying his home.

"Do you ever worry about our people disappearing?"

In the run-up to Brazil's elections, Bitaté watches Jair Bolsonaro, who will soon be elected president, promise a cheering campaign throng that once he's in office, "there won't be one more inch of Indigenous reserve."

Bitaté asks his grandfather, "Do you ever worry about our people disappearing?"

His grandfather's response: "It's up to the next generation now."

Bitaté is that next generation, but so are others, and though there's never any question where the filmmaker's sympathies lie, Pritz gives them all a moment in the spotlight.

The film introduces Sergio, a 49-year-old farm worker who's spent his life laboring on other people's land, and has dreams of owning a farm. He's formed a farmer's association, which opens its meetings with prayers citing the divine calling of working with nature. "If you don't claim the land," he tells his followers, "someone else will."

"The government will support us, just not now"

Sergio's doing paperwork to get government approval for a massive settlement — he envisions "a thousand families" — on what he regards as land going to waste.

The Indigenous people, he says, "don't create anything; they just live here."

Then there's Martins, who has no time for bureaucratic niceties. He's clearing roads, burning and chopping down trees, all but daring the police to stop him.

An invader rides his motorcycle through a rainforest blaze.
/ Alex Pritz/Amazon Land Documentary
Alex Pritz/Amazon Land Documentary
An invader rides his motorcycle through a rainforest blaze.

This is how nations are built, he asserts. "It makes me sick knowing we're considered criminals like we're the ones hurting the country. The government will support us, just not now."

The filmfinds haunting moments in this ongoing environmental tragedy — pulling the camera's focus back from farmers spraying pesticides, to note a butterfly settling on a leaf. Pairing shots of children racing through the woods with a single-file line of ants carrying leaves. Flying high over the trees to contrast the sinuous curves of the Amazon with the brutally straight outlines of farms.

Or following Bitaté as he and his fellow activists make citizens' arrests for criminal activities the authorities would otherwise ignore. A reluctant recruit when the community's elders decided to anoint him as their leader at the age of 18, he sees the Amazon as "the heart, not just of Brazil, but of the planet."

And he's media-savvy enough to know he and his fellow environmental warriors need help to make their case. When COVID strikes, and the presence of outsiders shooting news footage would endanger lives, Bitaté tells the TV journalists he's cultivated, "just send us your shot list. We'll take care of it." Then he heads out with his team, armed with bows, arrows and video-drones.

This makes The Territory – not unlike Three Minutes: A Lengthening — a testament not just to how loss and remembrance work, but to how the camera can shape them.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.