Synopsis: Aisholpan, a 13-year-old girl, trains to become the first female in twelve generations of her Kazakh family to become an eagle hunter, and rises to the pinnacle of a tradition that has been handed down from father to son for centuries. Set against the breathtaking expanse of the Mongolian steppe, and featuring some of the most awe-inspiring cinematography ever captured in a documentary. "A stunning, soaring, heroic adventure."--Variety Kazakh, with English subtitles
Running Time: 87 Minutes (plus 8-10 minutes of trailers)
In ‘The Eagle Huntress,’ a Girl From Mongolia Soars
By A. O. SCOTT, New York Times
Aisholpan is a 13-year-old girl who lives in Mongolia, dividing her time between a boarding school and her nomadic family’s campsite. With the release of “The Eagle Huntress,” a thrilling new documentary directed by Otto Bell, she may well become something else: a pop-culture heroine with the power to inspire girls (and not only girls) everywhere. It would not be surprising on future Halloweens to spot a handful of Aisholpans, dressed in traditional fur-and-embroidery hunting gear, pigtails fastened with pink bows, amid the throngs of Elsas and Katnisses.
A hit at the Sundance and Telluride film festivals, “The Eagle Huntress” has been shaped with wide accessibility in mind. The subtitled dialogue is supplemented by gently didactic voice-over narration, read by the British actress Daisy Ridley (also credited as an executive producer). A rousing Sia song plays over the end credits. A few moments that might trouble the sensitivities of young viewers — the sacrifice of a sheep at the beginning and the death of a fox at the end — are edited to minimize bloodshed. And the story is a simple and appealing fable of indomitability and father-daughter companionship.
Aisholpan’s father, Nurgaiv, comes from a long line of eagle hunters, men who catch young birds and train them to hunt other animals for meat and fur. The tradition of eagle hunting is almost exclusively male, and the filmmakers assemble a counsel of elders to explain why girls should not participate. Nurgaiv ignores their arguments, and when his daughter shows up at the annual eagle festival as the youngest and only female contestant, nobody tries to stop her.
That event, which gathers 70 eagle hunters on horseback in a Mongolian provincial capital, Olgii, near the Kazakh border, provides the film with a sports-movie structure. We follow Aisholpan through the stages of preparation, as she plucks an eaglet from a mountainside nest and teaches it to follow her directions. Nurgaiv is a wise and patient coach, adept at managing expectations and meting out praise when it’s most needed. His daughter, meanwhile, wrangles her captive raptor with ease and confidence, and commands the screen with natural charisma. She is open and cheerful and also, as her father proudly notes, “a very tough child.”
This documentary revels in spectacular images of the Central Asian steppes and the snow peaks that surround them. Credit Sony Pictures ClassicsIt could hardly be otherwise, given the challenges of her vocation and the harshness of her surroundings. “The Eagle Huntress” may be driven by its main character and her story, but it’s also a nature documentary, reveling in spectacular images of the Central Asian steppes and the snow peaks that surround them. In keeping with the avian theme, the movie abounds in swooping, sometimes vertiginous aerial shots, most of them captured by drone-mounted cameras. The military and commercial uses of drone technology may be controversial, but it’s hard to deny the cinematic benefits that these hovering, buzzing robots bestow, especially in the hands of a skilled cinematographer like Simon Niblett.
In form and content, then, this is a movie that expands your sense of what is possible. A girl can hunt with an eagle. A camera can fly. Sometimes it all seems a little too smooth and easy: Aisholpan’s preparation for the festival seems to proceed without a hitch, and restless viewers may crave a little more suspense. Viewers jaded by daily doses of digital dazzlement might not fully register the reality of the wonders they are witnessing. But that doesn’t, in the end, make “The Eagle Huntress” any less wonderful.