D: Otto Bell / 87m
Narrated by Daisy Ridley
With: Nurgaiv Aisholpan, Rys Nurgaiv, Kuksyegyen Almagul, Boshai Dalaikhan, Bosaga Rys
In the Altai Mountains of Mongolia, there is a nomadic tribe who for centuries have used eagles in their hunt for food. A tradition that has survived for generations, an eagle hunter is usually male, usually an existing eagle hunter’s son who takes on the same mantle, and usually looked upon with respect. What is not supposed to happen – at least as far as the tribal elders are concerned – is the mantle of eagle hunter being passed on to a girl. Women, they believe, are “weaker and more fragile”, and should be “at home preparing tea and water”. Their attitude is unsurprising, but one thirteen year old girl is determined to prove them wrong.
Her name is Nurgaiv Aisholpan, and she wants nothing more than to be Mongolia’s first eagle huntress. Encouraged and supported by her father Nurgaiv, and her mother Almagul, Aisholpan takes her first step towards achieving her dream when she goes in search of an eaglet that she can train. Travelling into the nearby mountains with her father, they spot an eagle’s nest high up among the rocks. Nurgaiv lowers her down to the nest and Aisholpan is surprised to find there are two eaglets nesting there. While their mother circles overhead she manages to secure one of the eaglets and get it, and herself, back up to her father. The first hurdle is overcome, and Aisholpan is on her way to achieving her dream.
She trains the eaglet to do a variety of things, including flying to her on command. And she maintains her focus on the upcoming, annual Golden Eagle Festival, intending to enter the competition to find the best eagle hunter (an award her father has won twice himself). Aisholpan works hard, and her efforts pay off; she wins the competition, becoming the first female ever to do so. But she still has more to do to prove herself as a proper eagle huntress. In order to fully win over the tribal elders and their conservative attitudes, she must venture into the mountains during the winter months and with her eagle, hunt and capture the foxes that help sustain the tribe until the spring. It’s a perilous task, one fraught with danger, but Aisholpan gladly takes up the challenge, and with her father at her side, determines to claim the title of eagle huntress all for herself.
The Eagle Huntress introduces us to a world that most people will have little or no awareness of. As the movie opens we see wide Mongolian vistas that are breathtaking in their beauty and majesty. Awe-inspiring aerial shots of the Altai Mountains and the plains that spread out from their foothills show us a vast land that is both inviting and deadly. As we discover, Aisholpan and her family (and the rest of the tribe) live in yurts during the summer, but wisely, retreat to houses when the winter arrives. As Nurgaiv says, sometimes the winter temperatures can drop to as low as -40°. It’s against this chilling backdrop that the tribe source the animals that allow them to maintain their existence in this remote part of Mongolia.
That Aisholpan is aware of all this and still wants to follow in her father’s footsteps, shows both a commitment to her family, and her heritage. The tribe’s way of life, unchanged for generations, is important to Aisholpan, but there’s enough of an appreciation for wider issues involving sexism for the viewer to grasp the notion that, in her own way (and probably without her consciously doing it), she is standing up for women’s rights. It’s not the most obvious theme that the movie promotes – that would be the challenge to entrenched tradition – but it’s there nevertheless; in the background perhaps, but making its presence felt at various times throughout the movie. Once Aisholpan has won the Golden Eagle Festival competition, the camera returns to the tribal elders who have dismissed the idea of an eagle huntress with such easy disdain. For a minute or so, all is silence and embarrassment. It’s a lovely moment – a little predictable perhaps – but if you’re a practicing feminist, you’ll be punching the air in triumph.
Aisholpan’s fearlessness and tenacity in the face of such opposition – best exemplified by the looks she receives when her fellow competitors become aware of her intention to challenge them – is made delightful by Aisholpan’s straighforward manner and open, smiling features. She seems unperturbed by the antipathy that surrounds her, and at times appears to be ignoring it completely. What also makes Aisholpan a pleasure to spend time with is the sheer joy she radiates when she’s with her eagle, their bond one of the most affecting seen in recent cinema. Her confidence, and her ease around such a deadly predator, is startling for how quickly that bond is established. Every time she strokes its head or holds it close to her, the majority of viewers will no doubt be wondering if it’s all going to go horribly wrong.
But it doesn’t (thankfully). Instead, Aisholpan and her father journey into the unforgiving mountains together to hunt for foxes, and to complete the rite of passage that she’s embarked upon only a few months before. Once again proving the tribal elders wrong by enduring the hardships of winter life, Aisholpan’s persistence and courage win out, but not at the expense of her character or personality. Away from being an eagle huntress, Aisholpan is still a typical thirteen year old, chatting and giggling with her friends, and getting excited when she gets a chance to visit a department store in the nearest large town, Ölgii. There’s no contradiction between Aisholpan the grade-A student, and Aisholpan the eagle huntress, and that’s as it should be. If you watch this movie looking for some psychological insight into why Aisholpan does what she does, then you’ll go away empty-handed.
In the director’s chair, Otto Bell combines the natural splendour of the Mongolian steppes with the simple lifestyle led by Aisholpan and her family, and provides a familiar yet otherworldly environment for audiences to fall in love with. If there are times when things seem to go Aisholpan’s way a little too easily, then it’s a minor criticism when the movie is this enjoyable and this heartwarming. This is one of those occasions where the phrase “If you only see one documentary movie this year…” is entirely appropriate.
Rating: 9/10 – beautifully shot and edited by Simon Niblett and Pierre Takal respectively, and with a tremendous sense of its surroundings, The Eagle Huntress is a stirring, magical exploration of a world rarely seen by outsiders; it’s a movie that leaves you wanting to see more of the enchanting world it portrays, and to learn more about its intriguing, and quietly determined, central character.