Film review: The Eagle Huntress

David Gritten / 07 December 2016

A fascinating documentary about a 13-year-old girl determined to become the first female eagle huntress in her family.

It’s a fair bet most people won’t have seen a film that is set on the steppes of Mongolia – a film about a family of Kazakh nomads, who make their living herding cattle and goats. And until now, most people probably wouldn’t have been interested.

Learn more about the history and culture of the Kazakhs

But The Eagle Huntress is about to change all that. It’s a fascinating documentary about a delightful 13-year-old girl, Aisholpan, who is determined to become the first female in her family for 12 generations to become an eagle hunter. It’s a lovely coming-of-age story, a saga about the close bond between a father and his daughter – and a ‘girl power’ fable set against a backdrop of astonishing scenery.

The film came into being when director Otto Bell first learned of Aisholpan from reading an online story about her on the BBC News site. “There was a film that needed to be made about her,” he recalls. “And I wanted to be the one to make it.”

There was a picture of the girl, taken by Israeli photographer Asher Svidensky. Bell tracked him down, and persuaded him to go back to Mongolia with him. They met Aisholpan’s family, living in their ger (a large, round tent) beside a mountain, and they agreed he could make the film.

But he had to start immediately. Aisholpan’s father told them he and his daughter were about to attempt taking a fledgling eagle from its nest that very day. Although he lacked the proper equipment to shoot the scene as expertly as he would have wished, Bell agreed – and the first scenes of the film were shot there and then, as the girl managed to secure the young eagle in her grasp.

“We only had one bite of the cherry to get that shot,” says Bell now. He obviously needed to return with better equipment, sophisticated enough to shoot the stark beauty of the terrain and do it justice.

On his return, Bell learned much more about the traditions of Kazakh nomads, and the size of the task to which Aisholpan had committed herself. Families like hers endure hard lives in an often hostile climate. But they have lived this way for centuries, and have a rich variety of traditions.

One is that of the eagle hunter, a coveted title normally passed down within families from fathers to sons. Indeed, when Bell spoke to other families, some were dismissive about the idea of a girl hunting eagles. They told him girls were ‘too fragile’ or ‘not brave enough’ to hunt eagles.

Why are eagle hunters so important? Because, according to tradition, when the snows fall, they take their birds of prey up to mountainous regions to hunt foxes – a source of food.

It’s a remarkable story, and Aisholpan emerges as an exceptional young girl in more ways than one. She has already decided that she will leave her nomadic family when she becomes an adult, and study to become a doctor. Seeing the film, there’s little doubt that she has the determination and single-mindedness to achieve whatever she wishes.

The Eagle Huntress had its world premiere back in January at the Sundance film Festival in Utah. It has played several film festivals in a variety of countries since then, and has attracted mostly favourable reviews as a family-friendly documentary, and one that should prove inspirational to younger girls.

Interestingly, it’s this segment of the audience that Disney has targeted in recent years, with animated films like Brave and Frozen. It’ll be intriguing to see if a real-life heroine like Aisholpan can have a comparable effect.

It’s significant that the voice-over narration of The Eagle Huntress is by Daisy Ridley, the English actress. She became instantly famous last year in the most recent Star Wars movie, in which she played Rey – herself a strong resourceful young woman. Daisy was moved when she first watched The Eagle Huntress, and signed on immediately to deliver the narration. (She also became an executive producer on the film.)

So there we have it. I’d strongly recommend The Eagle Huntress as a fascinating (and truly beautiful) experience all the family can enjoy. 

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