Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Otto Bell.
This is one of the most gorgeous and visually stunning documentaries I’ve seen in a long time.
First time feature documentary filmmaker Otto Bell, who comes from a background in advertising, gives us a rare glimpse into to lives and traditions of the nomadic Kazakh tribespeople who live in the remote foothills of the Altai mountain range in western Mongolia. We’ve seen a couple of fictional dramas set in this world, with The Story Of The Weeping Camel in 2003 and Tulpan in 2008, but this documentary gives us some more insight into the ascetic lifestyle and harsh surroundings. The people for the most part live a simple life in their yurts and their farms, tending their animals, and moving according to the weather and conditions. They also catch and train eagles to help them with hunting for food and trapping animals. Traditionally in this patriarchal society the work of training eagles is man’s work, and the skills are passed on from father to son. In this world, according to tradition and the tribal elders, girls are considered too weak and fragile for such work, and their place is in the home cooking food and repairing clothes, etc.
But here we meet Aisholpan, an intelligent, strong and formidable thirteen year old girl who wants to train an eagle of her own. Thankfully her father Nurgaiv, a respected veteran trainer himself, not only supports her but encourages her to pursue her dream. In the end, thousands of years of tradition are about to be turned on their head. We follow Aisholpan as she first finds a young eagle and captures in its nest on the side of a cliff. She participates in the annual Golden Eagle Festival in the town of Olgii where she is the only female competitor in the festival, where she is competing against 70 males, all veteran eagle hunters. But her success and achievements quickly silence the old men, and there is a beautiful shot of the close-minded elders struck dumb in disbelief. And finally she embarks on her first hunt into the snow covered and treacherous steppes.
Bell had seen a photograph of Aisholpan, which was taken by Israeli photographer Asher Svidensky in 2013, and he ventured into Mongolia to find her to make this documentary. He invested his life savings into making the film. But some commentators have questioned whether this film, with its re-enactments and restaging of some events is a true documentary. But despite those concerns, The Eagle Huntress is a unique, wonderfully rich, feel-good and inspiring coming-of-age tale of female empowerment, following one’s dream, and it also works as a testament to a loving and supportive family environment. Aisholpan overcomes many obstacles to achieve her dreams, and breaks down some centuries old stereotypes along the way. The film sends out a very positive message that will resonate strongly.
Bell and his cinematographer Simon Niblett have captured some spectacular imagery and beautiful and extraordinary footage of the grandeur and harshness of the remote locations. This is a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen. Bell and his team spent some twelve months shooting the film, and we get a sense of the at times arduous conditions the small crew endured. He captures the everyday routine in the lives of this nomadic family, and he even follows Aisholpan to the boarding school where she is studying. The film is not without its flaws though as there are some re-enactments and reshoots of key moments. When Aisholpan climbs down to the eagle’s nest she has been fitted with a Go-pro camera that gives us some perspective shots, and these scenes are clearly recreations.
But Bell also juxtaposes the rudimentary lifestyle of the Kazakh’s with the more modern nature of the town of Olgii, with its 21st century trappings. The Eagle Huntress has been superbly edited by Pierre Takal who draws together the narrative strands. The music score is a little manipulative at times, but Sia’s anthemic ballad Angel By The Wings, which plays over the final credits, soars with its positive message.
The Eagle Huntress has been sparsely narrated by Daisy Ridley, of The Force Awakens fame, who saw an early cut of the film and loved it so much that she wanted to be a part of it. Not only does she narrate, but she is also one of the executive producers, along with Morgan Spurlock.