Director Otto Bell, Aisholpan, the eponymous Eagle Huntress, and her father discuss the making of The Eagle Huntress and what makes Aisholpan so impressive.
Young eagle hunters of the Kazakh people don’t get their hands held. If they want to be part of this millennia-old tradition, they must steal a fledgling golden eagle from its nest all on their own. Toward the beginning of Otto Bell’s documentary, The Eagle Huntress, we see preteen Aisholpan climb down the face of a mountain to a nest to steal her first eagle. The movie presents this as more than just seeking a hunting companion: she has something to prove as a young woman in a male-dominated field.
Bell cites this as the moment Aisholpan’s qualities as a protagonist became clear. “After she’d stolen the eagle — which I thought was astonishing, this little girl, with pigtails and a pink ribbon, just effortlessly scaling this mountain — not long after that, we were having a chat. It was probably the first full sentence that she said to me. She goes, ‘Girls can do anything boys can do.’ She was so matter-of-fact, quite steely. I thought, ‘Christ, there’s hidden layers to this girl.’ She has real mettle.”She goes, ‘Girls can do anything boys can do.’ She was so matter-of-fact, quite steely.Click To Tweet
Aisholpan and Nurgaiv have been greeted with wild applause at every festival they’ve toured to promote the film, from Sundance to Toronto. It’s not hard to see why. This is a slam-dunk doc crowdpleaser, with a likable lead and some absolutely stunning moments of photography. One shot from a GoPro attached to an eagle as it flies is an all-timer.
In the film, we see Aisholpan riding her horse and learning to command her eagle with utter fearlessness, but she’s extremely reserved when sitting for an interview in a West Hollywood hotel. She lets Bell or her father, Nurgaiv, do most of the talking. Then again, doing press can be intimidating even for veteran celebrities. Aisholpan may have the capabilities of an action star, but she lives a fairly regular life. In the film, we see her doing chores around her family’s homestead and playing with her friends at school. That the doc makes this clear actually serves to accentuate her qualities as a protagonist and even a role model. It makes the well-worn idea of ordinary people doing extraordinary things feel utterly natural.
Granted, “regular” in rural Mongolia means that you might think nothing of foreigners dropping in to observe your way of life. It wasn’t much of an adjustment for a documentary crew to tag along with the family for a while. Nurgaiv says, “Everything around the house and festival was very normal, because there are always many tourists and journalists with their cameras. And many people come visit at our house.” There was, however, one notable hassle the filmmakers brought on: “The hard part was that without the cameras, we would just go for the mountain and hunt and catch the fox and come home. With the camera, it was slower.” Still, Nurgaiv is pleased with the finished movie: “It’s good to share the experience between [me and Aisholpan], how I teach her, and how we are close to each other. I’m happy that it will inspire people.”The film can’t trust the natural physical grace of the hunters, their horses, or their birds.Click To Tweet
Unfortunately, The Eagle Huntress is very basic in both its construction and its approach to its themes. It’s frustrating that the film can’t trust the natural physical grace of the hunters, their horses, or their birds. Erratically placed narration by executive producer Daisy Ridley serves mostly to explain things that are readily apparent. The score, a melange of generic orchestration, never misses a chance to try to do the work that the imagery can do on its own. Bell seems afraid that if the film stops hammering in the same information, we won’t get it. In the lead-up to the Eagle Festival, there is a piece of narration explaining the rules, a section in which Nurgaiv talks directly to the camera about those same rules, and a sequence in which an announcer is heard declaring the rules over a loudspeaker.
Even more egregious are the questions which have come to light over Bell’s depiction of Kazakh culture. Multiple pieces have come out that contradict the doc’s portrayal of the eagle hunting tradition as rigidly hostile to female participants. Aisholpan is the first female to win the Golden Eagle Festival, but she is hardly the first Kazakh eagle huntress, in either contemporary or historical terms.
'Just follow your dreams and be as brave as me.' - AisholpanClick To TweetBelieving Aisholpan’s story may not be inspiring enough on its own, Bell constructs artificial stakes against her. The story presents several elders naysaying the idea of a girl eagle hunting. The filmmakers sought out exceptions in the community and presented them as the rule. In doing so, the movie does a disservice to the culture it purports to celebrate. It’s especially troubling because this plays into the Western idea of more traditional societies being inherently more sexist.
Though moments of inaccuracy and weak filmmaking weaken The Eagle Huntress, these can’t dilute Aisholpan as a protagonist. Regardless of how much resistance she does or doesn’t face from the patriarchy, she remains a wonderful role model. As Bell’s anecdote attests, she can often do so without even thinking about it. When asked if she has any advice for other girls facing adversity, she grins and says, “Just follow your dreams and be as brave as me.”