The Eagle Huntress (2016) / Documentary-Adventure
MPAA Rated: G, suitable for all ages (though there is some natural animal carnage)
Running Time: 87 min.
Cast: Aisholpan Nurgaiv, Rys Nurgaiv, Daisy Ridley (Narrator)
Director: Otto Bell
Review published January 1, 2017
Aisholpan is a thirteen-year-old nomadic Kazakh girl living in proximity to the snowy and treacherous Altai Mountains region of western Mongolia, who ends up being shown the ropes of becoming an 'eagle hunter' by her father, whose family has practiced the art for many generations, after the two end up capturing a female eaglet for her to train in the time-honored traditions of her forbearers. Why this matters as a film is that it is extremely rare for a girl to be an eagle hunter, and further upending the patriarchal system of things, Aisholpan decides to enter an annual eagle hunting contest after training her eaglet in the ways of the millennia-old tradition.
This documentary directed by Otto Bell does a good job in setting up this underdog story, pushing forward the naysayers to Aisholpan's resolve as a main hurdle that she must set out to prove is wrongheaded and backwards to new ways of thinking, something she regularly does at school using both her mind and physical prowess It's not just that the elders within the eagle hunting industry think a woman shouldn't do it, they actually think that only men are capable, which should put most viewers on the side of Aisholpan as someone who is determined to show that they most certainly can, and can do it just as well as any man.
But there's not a great deal of boyishness to Aisholpan outside of her interests in activities almost exclusively pursued by her male counterparts; the documentary also shows that, underneath, she is still a young girl with lots of interests that the female members of her community are also interested in. She doesn't have any axe to grind toward men or the system, she simply enjoys the sport and feels it is important to preserve ther tradition in every way, save from excluding someone like her from participating.
Outside of the closed-minded few, it is also heartwarming to see that others around her are also open and willing to accept Aisholpan as worthy of participating in the Golden Eagle Festival, and they seem to root for her to succeed in the interest of good sportsmanship (to be fair, many comprise of tourists to the area, and the local elders do comment, cynically, that Aisholpan's story seems like a stunt to draw in more spectators). Despite the 2000 years of male domination in the survival skill, while people find it surprising, few, if any, express outrage at her attempt to compete with the big boys in the arena. While the traditions are honored and respected, there is a level of embrace, too, to modernity and transition of the culture to new ways of thinking.
Daisy Ridley, who also gets an executive producer credit, serves as sporadic narrator, never intrusive, but not always necessary either, save to put a familiar name to attach to the film from a marketing standpoint. Indeed, if there is a negative criticism I have of this otherwise delightful film overall, it's that Otto Bell and company seem to be bending the narrative to suit their needs in terms of marketing this on the world stage, putting forward a few false notions about a society that generally is more modern and embracing of female participation than the documentary would suggest. Some of the drama seems manufactured, and some of the interviews seem skewed to show what Bell wants us to see and hear, rather than a complete picture that might temper our excitement for Aisholpan's success in proving them wrong. This, plus activities that seem to be staged, or recreated entirely, more for making a film than what might have been done in real life situations, makes The Eagle Huntress feel like it is halfway a narrative drama, rather than a full-fledged documentary.
Other than for the heartwarming and empowering story that shows that no one should be barred by gender from at least trying to fulfill a dream, The Eagle Huntress is a very compelling documentary for its capturing of the gorgeous landscapes of Mongolia with breathtaking drone shots, as well as its stunning, birds-eye Go-Pro footage of beautiful and elegant animals as they soar in the sky and across the frosty cliff sides rarely captured on film, thanks to the amazing work from cinematographer Simon Niblett.
Like the effervescent and ever-smiling Aisholpan herself, the film isn't out with fierce talons to shred the male-dominated society so much as it goes about its business by just suggesting old fuddy-duddy people merely see things in a new and (hopefully) positive light. Aisholpan, who wants to become a doctor when she becomes an adult, doesn't set out to be a hero, but by the end of the film, you'd be hard-pressed to not want to carry her around on your shoulders and parade her as a champion in trying to confidently pursue a passion no one thinks she should even entertain, regardless of whether she is the best at what she has set out to do.
©2016 Vince Leo