Film Review: The Eagle Huntress

Director Otto Bell first discovered Aisholpan, a young girl training to be the first female eagle hunter in her home region of Bayan-Olgii in Mongolia, from a BBC photo essay. The images, shot by Asher Svidensky, showed the girl training with her father’s eagle. Eagle hunting is an ancient Kazakh tradition passed down from father to son, and Aisholpan is the first eagle huntress in the course of her family’s twelve generations of eagle hunting. When Bell decided to travel to Mongolia to shoot a documentary about Aishpolan, he had no idea if he would end up with five minutes worth of footage or an hour. The result was ‘The Eagle Huntress,’ a feature length documentary that is not only stunningly beautiful, but a heart-warming coming of age tale of courage and determination.

Hunting with eagles is traditionally a male realm. A series of Kazakh elders tell us it isn’t a woman’s place, amusingly cut together to highlight the ridiculous notion that a girl wouldn’t be just as capable as a boy. Aisholpan has grown up riding horses, climbing mountains, and helping her father with his work. She’s smart, tough, and brave, not at all fazed by the eagles that her classmates fear. She is determined to become an eagle huntress, and seems to possess the same natural talent at handling eagles as her father, who supports her dream and proudly trains her, believing boys and girls are equal.

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The film, which is narrated by Daisy Ridley, follows Aishpolan as she studies at boarding school with her siblings and a close-knit group of friends during the week, and spends the weekends at home being taught by her father about eagle hunting. A tense scene ensues when Aisholpan climbs down a mountain in order to reach a nest to take an eaglet of her own to train. And this was no recreation – it was in fact the first thing the crew shot, according to a Q&A with Bell at Picturehouse Central on Tuesday evening (6th December). Shortly after arriving, Aisholpan’s father told them they were going to steal an eaglet that afternoon, and invited them along to film it. The sequence was shot with three cameras and in one take, real time. Another thrilling scene documents their journey to the Golden Eagle Festival, where she is the youngest and only female competitor, much to the surprise of some disgruntled participants. The film’s final act follows her desire to successfully hunt a fox in the snowy mountains with her father.

‘The Eagle Huntress’ is absolutely stunning, beautifully shot by just three crew members, which is certainly an achievement. The landscape of the Altai Mountains is captured in all its incredible glory, while the life of Aisholpan and her family is documented with a quiet observational charm. This is not a history of the Kazakh tradition of eagle hunting, or an exploration of their culture and lifestyle; these elements are only detailed where necessary to Aisholpan’s story. For this is ultimately a character study of one young girl, her determination, and the rites of passage in training as an eagle huntress and following in the footsteps of her father and grandfather before her. Aisholpan is plucky and quick witted, making numerous humorous asides throughout the film, ignoring the disapproval from some elders, and never doubting herself for a moment. She’s both a fearless huntress and a normal girl, painting her nails purple in preparation for the competition, the pot of nail varnish resting beside a strip of animal flesh she feeds her eagle.

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She’s the kind of role model that young girls – and boys – need more of in this world. But more than this, she’s an inspiration for us all. She not only proves that women are just as capable as men, easily out performing many of her much more experienced male competitors, but also shows what people can achieve if they are determined, work hard, and give it their all. The film is an outstanding debut feature from Bell, and will surely be in the running for an Oscar. A highly heart-warming and breathtaking documentary, ‘The Eagle Huntress’ has a captivating story and central subject, and is an inspiring, feel-good must see.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Eagle Huntress’ below:

‘The Eagle Huntress’ is released in the UK on Friday 16th December 2016. Check out Picturehouse cinemas for listings in London.