Confession time – I did not know exactly what I was getting myself into when I walked into the premiere of The Eagle Huntress. I knew that the film was critically acclaimed, that it won Best Documentary at the Hamptons Film Festival earlier this month, and that Daisy Ridley and Morgan Spurlock were among the film's producers. And while Otto Bell’s masterpiece may be described as a coming of age story or a girl-power anthem of sorts the film transcends boundaries much like it’s heroine Aisholpan.
Captivated by a photo essay of 13 year old Aisholpan and her eagle, director, Otto Bell, was compelled to get on a plane to western Mongolia and journey to the nomadic Kazakh community in search of his boundary-breaking protagonist and poured his savings (and then some) in to making a film about the first female ever to hunt eagles. Bell’s heartfelt introduction added a personal touch to the feel good atmosphere of the film.
Cuts between breathtaking shots of Aisholpan’s exquisite corner of Mongolia and the tension building sequences of her training her eaglet makes up most of Bell’s semi-staged documentary. What is most striking, however, is the relationship between the film’s stars - Aisholpan and her father, Agalai, - the heart of the film.
Agalai’s biggest fear – aside from his child’s safety when engaging wild beasts and terrain – is that Aisholpan would be denied her birth right as an eagle huntress and prevented from following in his footsteps. Their largest obstacle is that Aisholpan’s natural talent and exceptional merit would not be accepted to compete in the grand Eagle Festival because of their culture’s male centric traditions illustrated by comedic inserts from deadpan, eye-rolling, older men exclaiming: “she’ll have to get married soon anyway!” Along with his wife’s desire that her daughter “love[s] her life,” watching father and daughter work together harmoniously skinning animals and scaling mountains as equals sheds light to where Aisholopan’s unwavering confidence comes from.
Agalai – a seasoned and decorated eagle hunter – describes the female eaglet that his daughter catches as a remarkable specimen to be treated with respect and met with courage setting up a parallel between his Aisholpan and her first catch. Aisholpan overcomes each hurdle under her father’s wing and it’s beautiful to watch.
For those not lucky to have been in attendance at the starry Cinema Society screening at the Landmark Sunshine Theater, or the official after party on the roof of The James Hotel, The Eagle Huntress will be released in New York and Los Angeles on November 2nd. Nationwide release will come later in November.
Be sure to make every effort to see this one; it is sure to be a critical hit and a favorite to win in the documentary films category come awards season!
[Photos courtesy Patrick McMullan]