Film Review ‘The Eagle Huntress’
“What a baby sees in the nest, it then repeats when it grows up.” Aisholpan, a 13-year-old Kazakh girl from Mongolia, commits to a family tradition going back 12 generations.
88-minute documentary with Aisholpan, Rys Nurgaiv and Daisy Ridley, narrator. Director: Otto Bell. Producers: Stacey Reiss, Sharon Chan. Executive Producers: Morgan Spurlock, Jeremy Chilnick, Daisy Ridley, Susan MacLaury, Dan Cogan, Regina K. Scully, Marc H. Simon, Barbara Dobkin. Cinematography by Simon Niblett. Title Song: “Angel By The Wings” performed by Sia.
From the very first image, the audience joins an adventure that soars between majestic mountains and over remote, snow-covered valleys. Aisholpan, a young Kazakh girl, takes us on a spirited and heart-warming journey of determination and endurance, pursuing her dreams and surely inspiring young girls around the world.
“The Eagle Huntress,” directed by Otto Bell, premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and received a 2017 BAFTA nomination for Best Feature Documentary. Set in the spectacular Altai Mountains of Mongolia, it’s a story of empowerment, a father-daughter bond and the Kazakh tradition of hunting with eagles. It’s also an adventure story that unfolds within a nature documentary that celebrates an Indigenous nomadic way of life.
Narrated by Daisy Ridley (Rey, in the “Star Wars” universe), the film follows 13-year-old Aisholpan on her quest to become an eagle hunter and compete with the best at the prestigious Golden Eagle Festival in Ulgii. Learning from her father, Rys Nurgaiv, Aisholpan tackles these rigorous challenges with enthusiasm and resolution. She scales cliffs to take a young eaglet from its nest and then bonds with her high-flying companion Ak Kanat, White Wings.
The Altai Range provides the striking backdrop to a story that is about, figuratively as well as literally, climbing mountains. Cinematographer Simon Niblett captures breathtaking images. Sheer size makes these awesome rockscapes seem to be a natural power towering over the nomads on their resilient horses. The high crags and wide valleys feel untouched, their remoteness a blanket over land and people; vividly, they remind us that we are in one of the most far-off places on Earth.
A favorite scene comes when the Nurgaiv family break down their ger, or yurt, the traditional round tent used as a home during the summer months, and start the seasonal migration to their houses at the foot of the mountains. During the journey, Niblett and his cameras revel in the landscape; he uses drones to great effect—an obvious but effective “bird’s-eye” tool for the avian theme.
Nature engulfs the tiny figures marching across the land, their rusty truck, horses and eagles in tow. The two-track dirt road crisscross with another track, a man-made structure that seems out of place in this distant land (a common theme as the traditional nomadic way of life encounters 21st Century technology). No other humans are in sight. It’s a beautiful montage that illustrates the demanding aspects of this life, but also conveys peace and comfort. This paradox stays with us throughout—we watch with wonder and awe, and are hyper-aware of the protagonists’ rugged living conditions.
On Amazon Prime Video, the synopsis states that Aisholpan is on an “epic journey to become the first female eagle huntress.” The audience joins her on the passage from apprentice to flying Ak Kanat in the Golden Eagle Festival and then to the pair’s final test—a fox hunt in the bitter cold of winter. Throughout, Aisholpan attends weekly boarding school to boot.
There are many obstacles in her way, which she overcomes with inspiring grit and determination. However, director Bell takes some liberties that seem to embellish the story more than necessary. He emphasizes a misogyny apparently ingrained in Kazakh culture; the patriarchy seems to oppose Aisholpan’s desire to become an eagle hunter. Her participation in the Golden Eagle Festival ruffles some feathers. Some of the men express their version of “women belong in the kitchen.”
Although they’re comically edited, these conservative views seem to be honest opinions. But Bell appears to have sought them out specifically to help craft a story about a young girl breaking with tradition and rebelling against the patriarchy. Bell shows us no one who favors women as eagle hunters, apart from Aisholpan’s family, who support her strongly. Nor is there any indication of other female eagle hunters—the film (and the Amazon Prime Video synopsis of March 2021) suggests that Aisholpan is the first.
Aisholpan may be the first female eagle hunter in her family, but she is far from the first woman to hunt with an eagle. Second, the nomadic lifestyle requires and even celebrates gender equality. Everyone must work as a team to make ends meet in the harsh Central Asian environment. If you’re strong enough to help, then it’s all hands on deck! There’s no time to fret about gender.
(In “The Eagle Huntress: Ancient Traditions and New Generations,” Adrienne Mayor, a research scholar at Stanford University, goes into detail about past and current female eagle hunters. She discusses the nomad way of life and even shares her thoughts on the film. It’s a very accessible and insightful paper.)
The other overarching criticism of the film is that parts of it seems too good to be true; they could have been staged. Bell says that the opening scene—a hunter releases his eagle after the traditional seven years of service, so the bird can return to the wild and foster offspring—was manipulated. He is adamant that the rest of the film is a truthful unfolding of events.
But some scenes appear forced, as when Aisholpan is lying in bed and overhears her father talking with a master eagle hunter. In a hushed voice, the master notes the dangers and risks the young girl will have to endure on the upcoming hunt, emphasizing the unforgiving mountain terrain and winter weather. Throughout, the camera on Aisholpan gives us the illusion that we’re secretly witnessing a private moment as she tosses and turns under her covers and listens to the elders. The scene feels crafted to build tension and it provides ideal support to Rys Nurgaiv’s earlier comment that “Girls can do anything boys can, if they try.” It’s a little too tidy and convenient.
Discussing the film as a staged piece rather than an authentic depiction of life in Mongolia is appropriate, since critics point out that misogyny in Kazakh culture isn’t as dominant as is portrayed in the film. Mayor, at Stanford, notes in her paper that “documentary photography and films are expected to be ethnographically sensitive and factual,” but it appears that Bell is selective about the opinions he includes in his film.
Did the film need to embellish the female empowerment narrative in order to generate interest in Western audiences? Isn’t the story of a young girl wanting to become an eagle hunter compelling enough? According to Bell, the film should inspire young viewers in a classroom setting. If that’s the case, then the film achieved its objective. Aisholpan deserves to be celebrated for her passion, determination and dedication to her dreams. It’s mission accomplished for Bell’s aspiration to awaken the same grit and tenacity in his audiences.
Despite these hiccups, which need to be called out in the interest of a true representation of Kazakh culture and the nomad way of life, the film shows the breathtaking beauty of the high steppes of Central Asia. The Altai Mountains co-star in this film. The hunting sequence also is a master class in capturing stunning images. Filmed in freezing conditions, Niblett seizes some incredible footage with a combination of drone and tracking shots, culminating in a final act that is jam-packed with sensations.
The celebration of nomadic life drew me in as well. The people carve out a living mostly in harmony with nature in this remote and unforgiving region. Their culture seems to live in the present yet draws on the knowledge and wisdom of generations past. The tale of Aisholpan and her eagle is to be embraced and celebrated as a beautiful, inspiring story of an ancient way of life in modern times.
Available for rent on YouTube for $3.99.
Andreas Damm, a German-South African actor and filmmaker based in New York City, is Conservation Frontlines’ film reviewer.
Banner image: Aisholpan and her golden eagle. Sony Pictures Classics photo