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The Eagle Huntress

By , 2016-11-03

The working relationship of Mongolian Kazakh nomads with the magnificent golden eagles of the region is fascinating. Captured at the right moment of growth – old enough to fly, but still young enough to get yanked from a nest – they are trained to aid in foxhunting, but only for seven years, when they are returned to the wild. Falconry is a noble tradition but for two millennia it has been the exclusive domain of men.

Then along comes our 13-year old protagonist, the rosy-cheeked, likable Aisholpan, who is the daughter of Agalai, a seventh-generation Master Eagle Hunter from the forbidding Altai Mountains in western Mongolia, where in summer the nomadic, predominantly Muslim Kazakhs live in traditional yurts (in winter they often move to the cities). Aisholpan has a natural propensity to follow in her father’s footsteps. But, despite some allowances for modernity (solar panels on their yurts), there are certain things the elders will not allow. Girls cannot eagle-hunt. In a somewhat-comical montage the local men fold their arms and say things like “women get cold!” and “she’ll have to get married soon anyway!” The US-produced documentary The Eagle Huntress is here to prove these old codgers wrong.

Director Otto Bell and editor Pierre Takal arrange their film around three major events, roughly spread over a year, each dominating an act of the film. These are interleaved with smaller and quieter scenes of Kazakh’s daily life at home (in summer) and at boarding school (in winter) and scenes of eagle training. Act one begins when, Aesopian’s supportive father allows her to capture a baby eagle from a mountain nest. This involves scrambling down a sheer rock cliff, secured by a rope, to seize a three month-old golden eaglet from the nest as her mother circles overhead.

With her father she and the bird begin their enthusiastic mutual training, soon competing against 70 much more experienced men in an annual competition that comprises the second act. Aisholpan is not only the youngest contestant, but also the first-ever female. Her success there is applauded by most, but grumbled over by a few chauvinistic old-timers who still insist a woman’s place is strictly in the home — and that she’s still no true eagle hunter until she’s mastered the more dangerous, arduous and practical task of the perilous wintertime fox hunt in the frigid Altai mountains. Her maiden effort at just that comprises the film’s last act.

Though billed as a documentary, Bell has made more of a documentary-fiction hybrid, with some scenes clearly staged, scripted, cut and scored for dramatic effect. The only genuinely scary sequence occurs when Aesopian and her father have to force their horses through treacherous waist-high snow high in the frozen steppes. Otherwise, since our young confident heroine seems to easily ace every challenge put before her, there’s not much suspense or conflict to The Eagle Huntress. Aisholpan and her family are enjoyable to watch but the drama of this film is in the breathtaking cinematography (encompassing crane and drone shots) which has been highly shaped by the filmmakers to fit the narrative and thematic agenda. But you will love Aisholpan. She is an inspiration for kids everywhere, happily mixing her eagle ambitions with more familiar concerns, such as nail polish and school work. She plans to be a doctor and, after seeing this, you’re unlikely to bet against her. You will also, likely, learn more about the lives of this remote community, as they balance their traditional lifestyle with the modern world.

The Eagle Huntress is beautifully filmed by Simon Niblett and easily recommended. Denial tells a powerful tale about truth and history – a tale that needs to be told and is recommended.

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