From the other side of the world, ‘The Eagle Huntress’ soars with inspiration
Directed by: Otto Bell
Starring: Aisholpan Nurgaiv and Daisy Ridley
“The Eagle Huntress” – In the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, Hillary Clinton attempted to – but could not break – this country’s ultimate glass ceiling. On the other side of the world in Mongolia, however, a 13-year-old girl named Aisholpan attempts to shatter a sky-high – and more intimidating - glass ceiling nestled in the Altai Mountains, in trying to become a full-fledged eagle huntress. This fascinating documentary – directed by Otto Bell – transports the audience to an unknown land, presents a little-understood culture and offers a close and personal story about this amazing teenager.
Now, the life of a Mongolian nomad is a laborious, proud one and built on traditions. For Aisholpan’s family, they live in a large marquee during the summer months and move to permanent housing during the winters. Her mom raises the children and tends to the camp, and her father hunts with his eagle. In this culture, for hundreds (or perhaps, thousands) of years, each male hunter finds an eagle, and he and his bird become partners to look for game. Just like life in this environment, working in tandem with a winged hunting partner is not an easy proposition.
Aisholpan, an excellent student, does not settle for easy challenges and wants to be a doctor when she grows up. For now, she embarks on a most difficult journey: to partner with her very own eagle and emotionally grow into an eagle huntress.
Bell’s picture does a terrific job of framing Aisholpan’s day-to-day life within the community, but he also presents breathtaking shots of the Altais with dangerously steep, rocky ledges and vast grasslands below. This portion of Mongolia seems inviting at times, but mostly, Bell presents a harsh ecosystem in which its inhabitants need heavy coats to block dry, callous winds that could easily crackle one’s skin. (Just picture a Mad Max movie during a frosty winter.)
While the surroundings may be abrasive, Aisholpan’s family is certainly not. As a tomboy apprentice, she follows her dad on his hunting trips and related duties, and her father warmly supports her interest. This is highly unique, because the community’s elders massively frown upon women even considering hunting.
Their beliefs are wrapped in familiar misogyny seen in countless forms across societies and locations all over the world, but here, they are completely engrained in long, long traditions. The film displays these cultural barriers - blocking Aisholpan - when various elders deliver stern statements that explain away women’s roles in hunting.
For Aisholpan, her focus is simply with her dad and learning her craft with a bright smile and upbeat persona. When she does, indeed, find her own eagle, her internal light shines even brighter. With her dad’s tutelage and her natural affinity to partner with her beautiful, soaring bird, she can climb to brand new figurative heights.
The film climbs cinematic heights too, as it works as an informative lesson about this faraway community and its way of life. By introducing Aisholpan, she injects a fresh approach for the audience, but also for local families. Since eagle hunter traditions move from father to son, Aisholpan clearly breaks the mold. With her warmth, talent and love of her winged partner, they are welcome ingredients for success and inspiration to girls and everyone else.
Daisy Ridley - an inspiration to girls all over the world in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (2015) - narrates the documentary, however, her voice seems to appear for only a few minutes during the 87-minute runtime. No, do not run to “The Eagle Huntress” to hear Ms. Ridley speak for five or so minutes. Go to this documentary to see a most gifted teen with a big heart.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.