Arts & Events

New: The Eagle Huntress: A Winning Film that Soars and Scores
Now at the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley

Gar Smith
Saturday November 12, 2016 - 11:06:00 AM

Mongolia is famous for its sweeping deserts, its snowcapped mountains, its vast blue skies, the generosity of its people, the round tents of its nomadic herders (yurt-like structures called "gers"), and the beautiful round faces of its children. But now there's something new to marvel at.

Step aside, Ghengis Kahn, Mongolia has a new hero. Her name is Aisholpan and she's 13 years old. The men in her family have been eagle hunters for 12 generations but Aisholpan is the first female to take up this "manly art." As she is quick to insist: "If a boy can do something, girls can do it as well." And, to the filmmakers'—and filmgoers'—great fortune, she goes on to prove it. In spades.

Bear in mind, we aren't talking parakeets here. Golden eagles are huge creatures weighing up to 15 pounds and equipped with wings that can span six-feet and carry the sharp-taloned predator screaming through the air at 190 miles-per-hour.

Otto Bell's astonishingly beautiful film tells Aisholpan's story with all the big screen magnificence of a Hollywood blockbuster. If this were a Disney film, the upcoming holiday season would be awash with Aisholpan dolls, guaranteed.




Eagle Huntress is a flat-out feel-good family film—albeit one that begins with an animal sacrifice and climaxes with a bloody battle-to-the-death between a fox and an eagle. But what most stays in the mind are not the struggles, hardships, and victories, but Aisholpan's smile—beatific, serene, and confident. That, and her joyous cry of "Whoota!" whenever she calls out to "White Wings," her pet eagle. 

And when this small bundle of girl-power pulls on her winter furs and mounts her pony to go thundering across a snowy steppe at full-gallop, you might be tempted to holler "Whoota!" yourself—if you aren't tearing up at the sheer, joyous beauty of the moment. 

A Kazakh child from the Altai Mountains in northwest Mongolia, Aisholpan is a shy, quiet, engaging youngster. Like many Mongolian children, Aisholpan spends five days a week in the city, attending a live-in grade school. We see her with her school friends, giggling and blushing as they gab away the evenings. But Aisholpan is unique. She's the only one who has captured, raised, and trained a wild bird of prey. And she may be the only student who intends to become a doctor. 

She spends every non-school day in the wilderness, secure in the family tent. Her father, Nurgaiv, is a nomadic herder who shepherds goats and sheep across the steppes. He also is a master eagle hunter and a two-time winner of the annual Eagle Festival in Ölgii. And, unlike the male elders of the community who have no patience for the idea that a mere girl should aspire to become an eagle hunter, Nurgaiv is a feminist. 

There are three main challenges facing Aisholpan. First, she must singlehandedly chose and capture a wild eagle. After raising and training the bird to wear a leather hood and rest on her leather-clad arm, she dares to enter the annual Golden Eagle Festival and compete against the 70 best male eagle hunters in Mongolia. And, finally, she and her father have to prove her eagle's valor in a winter hunt to track and kill a fox in minus-40-degree temperatures with snowdrifts deep enough to swallow a pony. 

(Shooting the hunt took 22 days in weather so cold that the film crew's hands would freeze to the exposed metal of tripods and fires had to be built beneath the van's frozen engine block to bring the motor back to life. For more details on the challenges involved in shooting this film, check out the video interview with cinematographer Simon Niblett at the end of this review.) 

It was a wonder the film was made at all. Bell had never made a feature-length film and his only source of funding was a wallet-full of maxed-out credit cards. But a great stroke of luck led to a promotional "trailer" that caught the attention of documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock ("Supersize Me"). 

Bell's first visit to Aisholpan's family involved long ride on a Soviet-era bus and days spent getting to know Aisholpan and her parents. Because this was an "exploratory" visit, Bell and his two-man crew (Israeli photographer Asher Svidensky and cinematographer Christopher Raymond) only brought along a pocket-sized Zoom sound recorder, a small GoPro, and a single Canon C300 Mark 1 camera. 

They weren't prepared when Nurgaiv casually announced: "Me and my daughter are going to steal a balapan (young eagle) from its nest this morning. Is that the kind of thing you would like to film." 

It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and they went with what they had, climbing down the rocky sides of a mountain on ropes to film Aisholpan as she was lowered on another rope. They tucked the GoPro under her sweater, capturing the reaction of the young eagle as the plucky little girl approached the nest with the mother eagle swooping overhead. 

There were no stunt doubles. 

After Bell's ten-minute teaser brought Spurlock on board, Spurlock reached out to actress Daisy Ridley, whose turn as "Rey" in the latest Star Wars sequel, also celebrated a strong, single female. Ridley soon found herself "curled up in a ball and crying" as she watched the trailer. She immediately signed on as an executive producer and offered to narrate the film as well. In another testament to the power of The Eagle Huntress, Sia volunteered to write and record a theme song for the film. 

The Eagle Huntress does not look like a documentary. It unfolds with such sure-footed perfection that it looks like the entire movie has been storyboarded in advance. Take, for example, a scene where Aisholpan exits a room through a door that leads outside. The move contains a shot from inside the house, followed by a second perspective from outside the door and, finally, an astonishing overhead shot that places the scene within the context of a village neighborhood and follows Aisholpan and her father as they set off together down a long dirt road. 

If there were an Academy Award for footage captured by a camera-equipped aerial drone, The Eagle Huntress would be a top candidate to take home an Oscar. 

The cinematography is breathtaking. Look for the scene with a close-up of Aisholpan's foot in a handmade leather shoe: watch as she steps aside and reveals the beauty of a painted wall in the background. Or savor the simple image of a horse's shadow resting against the side of a house. 

The camerawork is matched by the editing. There is a scene where the camera is perched on a cliff alongside a hunter as he releases his eagle. A second camera catches the bird's flight as it leaves the hunter's arm and dives towards the camera. You expect to see the first camera in the second scene but only the hunter is visible, standing alone on the cliff. 

It should be noted that, despite the legacy of patriarchy, Mongolia has a long-established record when it comes to advancing gender equality. The 1924 constitution mandated equal rights for men and women and Mongolian women fought hard during the Sixties to breach the gender barrier and win careers as doctors, lawyers, writers, athletes, and filmmakers. Today, most of Mongolia's university graduates are women. 

The June 2016 elections that brought the Mongolian Peoples Party to power also saw a record 13 women elected to the national Parliament. One of the MPP's first acts was to proclaim that women must henceforth make up at least 25 percent of the Parliament. 

I can imagine Aisholpan, upon hearing the news, smiling up into Mongolia's blue skies and whooping: "Whoota!"