Directed by Otto Bell
Starring Aisholpan Nurgaiv, Daisy Ridley (voice)
The undeniably stirring The Eagle Huntress relates the story of Aisholpan Nurgaiv, a thirteen year old Mongolian girl who wishes to follow in the footsteps of her father and grandfather by becoming, well, see the title. Her people have been using Golden Eagles to hunt for meat and fur for generations, but the prestigious role is generally reserved for men. With her father’s help, Aisholpan captures a juvenile bird and begins training for the Golden Eagle Festival, where she will compete with fellow hunters from across Mongolia.
You’ve a harder heart than me if you can avoid getting swept up in this underdog tale; little Aisholpan’s good-natured determination to master her family tradition is incredibly winning, especially in the face of the wall of resistance personified by the half-dozen leathery old bastards the film frequently trots out to mutter that girls should be making tea in the ger, not hunting game on the steppe. The (not quite) climactic festival is some heart in mouth stuff, as our titular heroine has to strut her stuff in front of the gathered hunter fraternity – and potentially suffer their judgement, too. It’s the doco equivalent of the last act of The Karate Kid.
But it’s hard not to notice how carefully constructed this all is. Many scenes are almost certainly reconstructions or restagings, despite what director Otto Bell says – the mise en scene is too clean, the editing too continuous, the narrative too perfectly framed. There’s nothing implicitly wrong with that, per se – documentarians have been finessing the action since Robert J. Flaherty went north – but the film also forgets to mention that our heroine is not the first or, indeed, the only female eagle hunter. That doesn’t lessen Aisholpan’s considerable achievements, but it does make you question their framing.
The Eagle Huntress is still absolutely worth seeing, mind you. Aisholpan is an absolute champ, the photography is stunning, the story is thrilling, and the depiction of a culture straddling modernity and tradition is fascinating. Still, you may find yourself balking at some of the more obvious audience manipulation, and wonder what might have come of this story in the hands of a more dexterous director.