THE EAGLE HUNTRESS. Starring: Aisholpan Nurgaiv. Directed by Otto Bell. Rated G (Very mild themes). 87 min.
This is a British-Mongolian-American documentary, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2017. It tells the story of a young Kazakh girl who attempts to become the first female Master Eagle Hunter in her family. The film is narrated in English.
Aisholpan Nurgaiv is a 13 year old girl from Kazakh in Mongolia. Her family spends the warm weather in a yurt in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia, and endures the winter in town. The Kazakhs inhabit the southern parts of Eastern Europe Ural mountains and the northern parts of Central Asia.
All the men in Aisholpan's family have been eagle hunters for generations, and she wants to achieve what they have achieved. She is the daughter of a twice-champion Eagle Hunter. Her understanding father helps her to train eagles, and she manages with his support and love to capture and train a young eagle bird. With her father's permission, Aisholpan enters herself and her bird in the annual Golden Eagle Festival in Olgii, which gathers eagle hunters on horseback from throughout Mongolia. Against all expectation, she wins the competition from 70 men. Following the Festival, she sets out with her nomadic-herder father to take the final step as Master Eagle Hunter and do what her family have always done in the past. Braving the ravages of winter and severe cold, at more than -40 degrees, she and her eagle kill their first fox, and she returns home with her father in triumph.
Viewed by the elders as representing "a serious disturbance in how things are done," Aisholpan challenges traditionalist understanding of her society and culture by becoming the first Master Eagle Hunter in twelve generations of her family. Her journey is one of female empowerment. As a member of a patriarchal community, she successfully implants modernity in her culture. The film carries a clear message to parents, teachers, and family alike to urge young people of whatever sex to reach for more, and to try to achieve what at first might seem impossible.
There is some controversy with the film as to whether a number of its scenes were constructed for effect, but the visuals win the day. Technically, the film is superb, and its visuals are thrilling. Using National Geographic-Style photography, the camera takes the viewer stunningly into the air as Aisholpan's eagle soars, glides, hangs in the air motionless, and dives to kill or to eat or return to Aisholpan's arm. Aerial photography with drone-mounted cameras provides spectacular images of Central Asian steppes and the snow peaks that surround them. The film is a special tribute to the skills of the film's chief cinematographer, Simon Niblett.
What strikes the viewer first and foremost in this movie are the quality of its imagery, and the unusual story it tells. Aisholpan is a confident and courageous girl, and she never doubts for a moment that she can become an Eagle Hunter. Her resolve and fierce determination are extraordinary. Early scenes depict nature in the raw, but the film's focus is never far away from Aisholpan and her bird.
This is a family-friendly movie that is inspiring, and richly visual. The film strongly endorses female empowerment, and the importance of parental love and support. Aisholpan's parents always try to challenge her, and the fabulous bird she trains is a constant reminder of the wonders of the natural world. There are hints of staginess in some of the film's scenes, it is over-narrated at times, and the musical soundtrack at times distracts from the beauty of the visuals. All of these issues, however, fade into insignificance against the magnificence of the film's cinematography, the wonder of Aisholpan's eagle, and the achievements of a small, determined girl.
This is a rich and rewarding film that is eminently suitable for family viewing, and family sharing.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic film Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released March 16th., 2017