The Eagle Huntress is truly an original work of art. I say this because although it falls under the classification of a documentary it is clearly so much more than that. I don’t know if it’s the stunning cinematography or the flawless and natural way the story develops like a narrative sprung from the most family friendly of Hollywood screenwriters. Were it not set in Mongolia you would almost certainly find it hard to believe that you had not come across this story before. But it is, and as such, Hollywood have already snapped up the rights to turn this into a Pixar-based money maker. But until that day arrives we are left with the simple beauty of this inspiring tale.
13-year old Aisholpan is the daughter of a well-known Kazakh eagle hunter, Nurgaiv. Her father has been out hunting with eagles for years. The tradition is for the men in Northern Mongolia to find a baby eagle, master it, then spend the next seven years in the wilderness using it to provide them with food and warmth. That this involves tearing apart furry animals is omitted from this U-certificate film for obvious reasons.
Aisholpan is fascinated by what her father is doing. She wants in on the action. She wants to be the first eagle huntress in Mongolia. This, of course, is looked down upon by the majority of the community. There are some hilarious but still rather curt interviews with elderly men who outright refuse to acknowledge that a female could ever master an eagle. She should be cooking and cleaning apparently. But Aisholpan is determined and along with her father she travels out into the stunning vistas of the Mongolian mountains nearby, to snare a baby eagle. It’s this scene, which is filmed completely in real time, which is the most thrilling of the entire documentary. Suspended by a shoddy looking rope, Aisholpan descends the rocks and has to pluck a baby eagle from its nest. All the while the mother circles overhead. It’s breath-taking and if this was in a fictionalised version of a film you wouldn’t believe it was possible.
Aisholpan returns home with the baby eagle and a training montage of sorts takes place as she trains her eagle to become an extension of herself. Of course, all of this is leading to the big showdown at the annual Golden Eagle Festival. As Aisholpan and her father travel on horseback to the competition there is a sense of great expectation but also great trepidation for the young girl. She is going against all odds here. In a male-dominated sport, she is an outsider, inexperienced but determined. I won’t reveal how it ends but suffice to say you’ll be glued to your seat throughout.
British director Otto Bell was clearly very driven to tell this story, financing it mostly himself and running himself deeper and deeper into debt in the process. But it was worth it to bring this little-known story to the forefront of modern culture. With an Oscar-buzz already starting, it would be a shame for one of the most inspirational and beautiful documentaries of recent years not to take home the spoils. Suitable for the whole family, it would make a great Christmas watch.