Eagle Huntress – Film Review by Pat V.
Director: Otto Bell
Stars: Aisholpan Nurgaiv, Daisy Ridley, Rys Nurgaiv
The huge budgets and seemingly endless resources available to many documentary-makers have perhaps made us a little blasé about the difficulties faced during the filming. David Attenborough, in the closing section of each episode of his nature series describes the long and arduous task involved in filming different sequences, and we can deduce, from the amount of time and number of people involved, how expensive it must have been to capture these unique shots.
British director, Otto Bell, did not have those kind of resources when he set about making this extraordinary film set in Mongolia. He was surfing the web when he saw photographs of a young Mongolian girl with a golden eagle flapping on her arm. Intrigued, he investigated further and discovered that the photos were taken by an Israeli photographer, Asher Svidensky, and that the girl had broken the cultural traditions of her tribe by becoming the first female eagle hunter, an ancient skill normally handed down from father to son.
Investing all of his limited savings in the project, Bell, along with Svidensky and a cameraman, headed to Mongolia to trace the young girl, and the result of their expedition is this intriguing film. They found the 13 year old girl, Aisholpan, living with her family on a remote plain, part of the nomadic Kazakh community. Her father, like his ancestors before him, helped support his family by capturing and training eagles to hunt for rabbits and foxes, caught for their meat and skins. When Aisholpan showed an interest in following this tradition, she was encouraged by her father though the elders of the community were suspicious and opposed the idea that a woman should take on this challenge, until then mastered only by the most skilful men of the tribe.
Bells’ film is greatly helped by the guileless charm and winning smile of its heroine. Aisholpan is a ruddy-faced, cheerful teenager who seems to accept the limitations and challenges of the hand-to-mouth existence of her family without complaint or the sulks we often associate with Western teenagers. We see her here helping with the household chores, playing and chatting with her friends and, like any girl of her age, picking out her favourite clothes and painting her nails. However, we see the true grit of her character when she accompanies her father to go and capture a young eagle and is lowered over a rocky cliff to catch the bird single-handed.
The film follows the hard work involved in training the eagle to hunt and Aisholpan’s preparations to enter the annual Eagle Festival in spite of the resistance of the older tribesmen. There are no big surprises in the film but the stunning cinematography and the glimpse into a culture so different from our own always make it interesting to watch. Bell’s film is simple and straight-forward, we never doubt Aisholpan’s eventual success in her endeavours, and there is perhaps a certain tension lacking in the story but overall this is a beautifully made and interesting documentary.