The Eagle Huntress

Otto Bell
Release Year:
Aisholpan Nurgaiv, Daisy Ridley, Rys Nurgaiv.
Screening Date:
  • 30 Jan 2018
  • Categories:
    Adventure, Documentary

    A 13-year-old nomadic Mongolian girl fights to become the first female eagle hunter in twelve generations. Through breathtaking aerial cinematography and intimate vérité footage, the film captures her personal journey while also addressing universal themes like female empowerment, the natural world, coming of age and the onset of modernity.

    What's this?
    F-Rated Bronze

    Film Notes

    ‘You are awesome.’ These are words that every 13-year-old girl needs to hear from her dad. They’re much more helpful than ‘You are pretty’ or ‘You are nice.’ The dad doing the verbal high-fiving in this inspiring doc is Agalai, a Mongolian eagle hunter. Eagle hunting is a tribal tradition that goes back 2,000 years among Kazakh nomadic men, who ride out on horseback with an eagle across the frozen Central Asian steppes to catch foxes and rabbits. It’s a father-and-son thing. But enlightened Agalai understands that his pigtailed teenage daughter Aisholpan has the grit and talent to be a hunter. Aisholpan is one of life’s trailblazers – a feminist pioneer who would never in a million years think about herself in those terms. But hardwired inside her is the belief that girls can do anything boys can; and she’s got the iron will to prove it. Eagle hunting essentially involves riding a horse like the clappers holding a piece of raw meat while a golden eagle flies at you at 30 miles an hour, knife-sharp talons poised. It’s thrilling, and you can see why actress Daisy Ridley – tough heroine Rey in ‘Star Wars: A Force Awakens’ – signed up to narrate the film. After her training, Aisholpan’s dad takes her to the national championships, where she’s the first ever female competitor. What’s interesting is how standard sexism is across cultures. A bunch of miserable male eagle hunters dismiss Aisholpan: ‘Women are supposed to stay indoors’ and ‘They get cold.’ Then, when she starts winning, they switch tactic, the hypocrites:‘It helps that she’s a girl’ – as if somehow that explains her skills. You want to know more about what Aisholpan is thinking behind that shy determined smile. But that’s not her way. You can imagine her as the gutsy heroine of a Disney animation.

    CATH CLARKE, Time Out, DECEMBER 12 2016

    OK, I’ll come clean: I didn’t know that much about the nomad Kazakh minority living in Mongolia before I saw this documentary. Their facial features are east Asian, their writing is Cyrillic and their language is peppered with the inshallahs of other Muslims. The snowy, rocky terrain of the Altai mountains is gorgeous and inviting, but also treacherous. Most fascinating is their working relationship with the magnificent golden eagles of the region. Captured at just the right moment of growth – old enough to fly, but still young enough to get yanked from a nest – they are trained to aid in foxhunting, but only for seven years, before they are returned to the wild. It is a noble tradition, but, as with traditions of many cultures, certain aspects of it can use a rethink. Enter Aisholpan, a rosy-cheeked, exuberant 13-year-old daughter of an eagle hunter with a natural propensity to follow in her father’s footsteps. Despite some allowances for modernity (solar panels on their yurts), there are certain things the elders will not allow. Girls cannot eagle-hunt. In a montage in which these nasty crypt-keepers may as well be twirling their moustaches, they fold their arms and say things like “women get cold!” and “she’ll have to get married soon anyway!” The Eagle Huntress is here to prove these coots wrong. What’s more, Aisholpan completes her training with a look of such glee it’s a miracle she didn’t melt the ice from the highest peak in Mongolia. First, she must find and wrest an eagle away from its mother. The eagle-napping involves climbing down the side of a cliff, and it’s here where it becomes evident that director Otto Bell isn’t too worried about mixing in re-creations with his footage. But even if Aisholpan’s training – which includes hoodwinking, responding to calls, dragging dead foxes and other hallmarks of falconry – is for the camera, it doesn’t make it any less extraordinary. Especially in this remarkable environment, captured in breathtakingly crisp digital video. The movie needs a centerpiece, though, so Aisholpan ends up entering the community’s annual Golden Eagle competition. Despite some raised eyebrows, she is allowed to compete: she’s not only the first female, but the youngest entrant. Does she do well? Does her majestic eagle swoop down from the top of a mountain when she whistles, grabbing on to her protected forearm with cinematic gusto? I’ll let you figure that one out. In addition to the feelgood, family-friendly aspects (along with Daisy Ridley, Star Wars’ Rey, narrating), there are wonderful glimpses of this unique society’s non-ornithological customs. Even the villains, those nasty jerks trying to keep a young girl from her dreams when she so clearly has a natural gift, are elegantly framed, with dazzling decor in their traditional dwellings. The Kazakh nomads may not have many material things, but what they do have doesn’t want for style. The closing theme from Sia, with the refrain “you can do anything” sung over and over, is perhaps a bit literal, but some aspects of the film are more nuanced. There’s also just enough red in tooth and claw in the foxhunting moments to claim verisimilitude, but not so much that children will be vomiting into their popcorn. The Eagle Huntress will glide into awards season nicely.
    Jordan Hoffman, The Guardian,September 8 2016 Toronto film Festival


    What you thought about The Eagle Huntress

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    35 (42%) 42 (51%) 6 (7%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%)
    Total Number of Responses: 83
    Film Score (0-5): 4.35

    Collated Response Comments

    Sound and vision restored and the correct film playing. 147 came along to witness this and 83 provided a response. A hit rate of 56%. Many of you were full of praise for the “wonderful photography and a special glimpse of a very different way of life”. One member commented “What a joy! Fascinating insight into Mongolian rural culture, superb photography”. Another wrote “The film has undoubted charm and Aisholpan is a hugely likeable character with her winning grin but I think the film could have worked harder and dug a little deeper in several areas…I could have done with more detail on how the eagles are trained… and more on how the community functions. I felt the tale was a little too plainly told and left me with as many questions as answers especially regarding what the other women in the tribe thought of our heroine’s victory. Certainly more drama could have been added in the editing but perhaps that might have detracted from the veracity of the story and its stunning location”. Amongst all the various positive points made about the film, there were many complaints about the poor quality of the subtitles. Here are a few: “Lovely film spoilt by terrible subtitles. Surely when you’ve gone to all that trouble to film in the Alti Mountains you can get the sub titles right in the studio”. “Excellent film, although the sub titles were not always easy to see”. “Fascinating to watch – had difficulty following the subtitles, but otherwise a thoroughly enjoyable film”. “Usual frustrating problem with the subtitles, otherwise a near perfect film. Magnificent birds, charming girl, and family”. “Yellow subtitles tricky to read. Fascinating, extraordinary film”. “Great photography. But that old subtitle problem again”. “A truly interesting film–outside our own experience – subtitles unreadable”. As I have explained before this is all down to the distribution companies, who, while demanding film makers deliver the elements for subtitling, then do not spend the money or have the wit or expertise to create them properly i.e. not only are they technically poor; in many instances the translations themselves are of dubious quality. The consideration is primarily TV. Older films, originally subtitled for Theatrical release are much better…as I hope you will see tonight. Many of you wrote some fine pieces. They are all collected on the website. Here is a selection of some of them. “Wonderful scenery – appropriate music but too loud at times and I could not hear all the voice over”. “I would rate this film good. Whilst I enjoyed seeing the skill and courage of the eagle hunters, particularly of the young girl, I felt this didn't fully compensate for the lack of depth to the storyline”. “Totally fascinating – hard to believe that people still live like this”. Absolutely stunning – the most beautiful film I have seen”. “Excellent documentary. Good on the judges for not finding a reason why she couldn’t win. Well-made film”. “…Amazing birds. Good to know they go back to the wild eventually”. “An interesting insight into a different way of life. I was enraptured”. “Difficult to film. Very enjoyable. Interesting faces. Genuine Mongolian horses and costumes”. “As good as Attenborough?” “Fascinating photography and camera work. A heart-warming story. Equality for women – difficult in that society. An interesting record of a harsh way of life”. “Tricky film to score, this. Should it be judged as a documentary, entertainment or wildlife film? Any road up, it was 0/10 for subtitles – again. I’ve been reading about the controversy the film stirred up, and the misrepresentation inherent in the whole story line of ‘female in a male world’. OK as entertainment but not when presented as documentary. As a wildlife film, the standard was good in parts (great scenic shots and some of the flight views) but the editing was sometimes rather poor. We are spoiled by the BBC Wildlife Unit. The best thing about the film was bringing to an audience the almost other-worldly traditions of this culture, which seems to have taken useful elements from the modern world but without destroying the tradition”. “Wonderful costumes, landscape, beautiful smiling faces, magnificent eagles and aquiline featured eagle hunters and an enchanting heroine. But the subtitles went too fast and were hard to read. (And I thought that Golden Eagles were golden!) FYI Golden Eagles are dark brown, with lighter golden-brown plumage on their heads and necks. They are extremely swift, and can dive upon their quarry at speeds of more than 150 miles per hour. “Fabulous. Incredible to watch such photography. Very enchanted”. “Stunning photography and a lesson in patience for us!” “Truly beautiful and absorbing. Such magnificent scenery. Loved every moment”. “Girl power!!” “Loved the story; beautiful traditional costumes and clothing. The soundtrack was too loud and repetitive. Traditional music would have suited better”. “Totally wonderful. Superb photography and what a star the young Eagle Huntress is. In fact all the people who live in such inhospitable conditions are amazing. The horses were fantastic too!” “What an insight into another culture. Subtitles difficult to read and not on the screen long enough for me. Nevertheless – a very special film”. “Lovely story. Fantastic scenery. However the subtitles could not be read. Why do they not make different colours for different backgrounds?” “Fascinating insight into a very different culture (but misogyny rules, wherever!!) Shame about the fuzzy sound and (again!) appalling and illegible subtitles. What a girl- a real star (along with her eagle…) “. “Excellent photography. Music added to the atmosphere. But why can the subtitles not be sorted out – to be readable”. “Geographical, cultural and ethnographic interest more than made up for lack of polish as a viewing experience”. “Wonderful faces, dazzling smiles and fantastic hats! The relationship between the girl and her father and grandfather was inspirational. Shame about the subtitles! Again!” A second viewing and equally captivating”. “I may have sat too far back but I found the subtitles VERY difficult to read which spoiled my enjoyment of the film. However, an amazing girl and her father’s open mind to teach his daughter”. “The captivating smile of the “Champion” and the amazing beauty of the desolate scenery and the beauty of the birds carried the film. But again impossible to read subtitles”. “A great insight into a very different way of life. The facial expressions were marvellous. Poor subtitles”. “Brutally harsh, but excellent filming. Traditions are not to be held too precious, horror. Inevitably it will happen”. “It would be excellent if one could read the subtitles! Amazing story and scenery. What a feat to ride holding a splendid eagle on your arm”. “A wonderful insight into the life of an eagle huntress. What an amazing strong brave girl. Stunning scenery and beautifully filmed. Enjoyed the music too!” “Beautiful story. However all the situations were so heavily staged that I ended up wondering if I was watching a documentary or a feature film”. “More documentary than “film” but I liked the concept of female huntress. I’d seen a similar Simon Reeves documentary not long ago – nevertheless a wonderful portrayal of like of Kazakhstan”. “Lovely mountain photography. Another subtitled film. Spare a thought for the Dyslexics among us!!”

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