From first-time documentary director Otto Bell, executive producers Morgan Spurlock (‘Super Size Me’, ‘The Greatest Movie Ever Sold’) and Daisy Ridley (‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’), ‘The Eagle Huntress’ is a beautiful film. Stunningly shot and fantastically rendered, it takes the slimmest of subject matter - a girl and her pet eagle - and spins it into an empowering journey into an alien wilderness and an unfamiliar culture.
‘The Eagle Huntress’ follows the story of Aisholpan, a sweet 13-year-old Kazakh girl from Mongolia. We watch her at school (she wants to study medicine and become a doctor) and with her nomadic family, spending their summers in a yurt in the Altai Mountains and winters in a house in town. As the daughter of a particularly celebrated hunter, Aisholpan wants to become the first female eagle hunter to compete in the annual Golden Eagle Festival at Ulgii. With her father Nurgaiv's help, she learns how to train golden eagles, and then captures and trains her own eaglet.
SWITCH: 'THE EAGLE HUNTRESS' TRAILER
Tucked in between the festival and Aisholpan's first foray into winter time fox hunting are exquisite depictions of everyday nomadic life on the perilous steppe. Aisholpan and her young siblings play along the borders of their parent’s yurt as the austere mountains threaten to envelope their livelihood. You get a sense both of the dangers of living in such inhospitable lands and the allure of such an uncomplicated, insulated existence among grass, rock and pebbled riverbeds.
The film uses a variety of cameras to immerse the viewer in the story, including drones to capture the sweeping aerial views of the sublime vistas and a strap-on GoPro for a perilous mountain descent to an eagle’s nest. From the otherworldly beauty and bleakness of the mountains of western Mongolia to the bustling city of Ulgii, the slow-motion action of the eagles in flight to the intimate footage of the family sharing a meal, ‘The Eagle Huntress’ is a visual delight.
Pulling double duties as both executive producer and narrator, Daisy Ridley’s crisp British tones are used sparsely but effectively. Jeff Peters’ film score, featuring the stirring ‘Angel by the Wings’ by Australian singer Sia, is also pleasantly low-key yet employed for blockbuster-esque impact during a number of heart-swelling moments.
Stunningly shot and fantastically rendered, it takes the slimmest of subject matter and spins it into an empowering journey.
Occasionally, we are reminded that ‘The Eagle Huntress’ is still a low-budget documentary from a freshly-minted filmmaker. The storyline feels clumsily shepherded by the director, with reality blurred to make the journey of the young eagle huntress appear even more difficult. Several interviews and sequences in the film are edited out of chronological order to emphasise the film’s strongly feminist message. Furthermore, if you are aware of the camera and its placement, it's impossible not to notice that several shots were staged, like the afore-mentioned mountain descent.
These narrative tricks hardly seem necessary given the subject. As much as the film attempts to draw focus on to the negative attitudes of the traditional Mongolian hunters towards a female interloper, the real highlight is the tremendous joy of Aishoplan’s father, who is plainly supportive of his young daughter’s aspirations. The empathy and shared love of the task and each other is never less than inspiring.
As a complete work, the documentary is not without flaws, but the unique story and the jaw-dropping beauty of the Altai mountain range easily transcend any missteps on the part of the film-maker. This is simply an amazing story, mainly due to the glowing Aisholplan. Her steadfast love for her family, spirit in the face of adversity and uncompromising zeal for the sport she loves so very much is enough to rank ‘The Eagle Huntress’ among the best coming-of-age stories.