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Interview with ‘The Eagle Huntress’ director Otto Bell

Friday 16 December 2016

The Eagle Huntress’ is certainly one of the most beautiful documentaries of the year, both visually stunning, and full of feel-good, life affirming charm. The film centres on thirteen-year-old Aisholpan, the only eagle huntress in the Bayan-Olgii region of Mongolia that she calls home, and the first woman to train as a eagle hunter in her family’s twelve generations of hunting with the birds. Following a career learning his trade creating short, documentary style commercials, director Otto Bell made ‘The Eagle Huntress’ – his debut feature – after being inspired by a BBC photo series of Aisholpan and her father, shot by Asher Svidensky. Bell wasn’t sure what he’d up creating as he travelled to Mongolia to film the young eagle huntress, but he knew it would be something special. Indeed, the film is a spectacular achievement; breathtakingly beautiful and utterly captivating, Aisolpan’s courageous coming of age is heart-warming and truly inspiring. We spoke to Bell about his desire to make the documentary, his experiences while filming, and why Aisholpan is a refreshing role model for all of us.

What draws you to the documentary form?

I’ve always relished the unexpected aspect of telling a true story in real time. I love taking unforeseeable tangents when filming – I love “finding the story on the ground.”

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You discovered Aisholpan in a BBC photo essay. What made you want to tell her story? 

Asher Svidensky’s photos really moved me to find out more. Not only were they profoundly beautiful, but they also contained all the ingredients for a great film – a stunning location, exotic tradition, and a compelling protagonist.

You said in your Q&A at Picturehouse Central that you weren’t sure if you’d end up with five minutes of footage or an hour. This must have felt like a risk but also very exciting! How did the film develop? When did you realise it would be a feature?

That’s right – things kept happening over the course of filming that eventually gave us a critical mass of footage and story beats such that we could sustain a feature. I will say I was convinced from the get go – from the moment Aisholpan plucked her eaglet from the mountainside – that we had something very special.

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The film is absolutely beautiful, both visually and spiritually. You’ve said you only had a crew of 3 – how did you achieve such a spectacular film? What challenges did you face? 

We were beset by challenges. Firstly financial, which has a knock on effect on everything else. I made the film with my own (paltry!) life savings and a high interest loan from the bank. That made it stressful to transport my crew and our equipment to the most remote corner of the least populated country in the world. There was a very real language barrier to surmount – we made the whole film through a translator. Then there were the variables that come with filming wild animals. The food out there is very different to our own, so we struggled to eat well. These challenges were all capped by the weather, which was severe. The final act of the documentary was filmed in minus fifty-degree conditions and that’s very tough; the camera gear packs up, battery life is zero, and it takes four times as long to do the simplest thing.

What was it like living in such a different climate and culture to shoot the film?

The Kazakh nomads of North West Mongolia are an incredibly welcoming and hospitable people. I feel very lucky to have met and bonded so deeply with Aisholpan and her family. They’re coming to my wedding in England next year and we’ll be close forever, I’m sure of that.

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Aisholpan’s determination is really inspiring – you must have felt personally inspired by her and her story. Tell us about your experience.

Yes, despite all the challenges, her determination kept me and the crew going – it’s hard to complain when this thirteen-year-old girl is powering forward, wading through snowdrifts and carrying her heavy bird!

Why do you think the world needs her story and role models like her?

What I like about the public response to Aisholpan is that it’s not based on what she’s wearing or who she’s dating – she’s a celebrity based on merit and accomplishment. That’s truly inspiring, especially for young girls and boys.

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What’s next for you as a filmmaker?

We’ve got the animated version coming up and I’m reading lots of scripts.

What’s your dream project? 

This one is turning out pretty well, but I’m sure there’s more around the corner!

Watch the trailer for ‘The Eagle Huntress’ below:

‘The Eagle Huntress’ is out in UK cinemas today. Check out our review of the film.