The Eagle Huntress is a brilliant fusion of Pixar’s Brave and Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon. Except it’s all real. This is a tale of a young girl battling against sexist tribal elders to become the first eagle huntress; besting her rivals, proving herself against the elements and battling against the odds.
The raw material of isolated Mongolian eagle hunters makes for a potent cinematic cocktail: not just authentic and uplifting, but inherently visually exciting. It’s perhaps no wonder that Ice Age director Chris Wedge has signed on to direct an all-star animated adaptation of the same story.
With its subject’s snowballing fame (and high hopes for the film in awards season), its humble origins are increasingly faintly surreal. It began with photographer Asher Svidensky heading to Mongolia to document the lives of Kazakh eagle hunters, a trip which produced a striking picture of a young girl in full eagle hunter uniform.
That young girl is Aisholpan, the 13-year-old daughter of an experienced eagle hunter living a mostly isolated nomadic existence. Back in London, corporate film and ad director Otto Bell saw her photo, realized the potential of the story and promptly invested his life savings into making this documentary. Purchasing equipment and hiring experienced photographers, he headed out to Mongolia in the hopes of getting this all on film.
Serendipitously he met Aisholpan and her family on the very day they were heading into the mountains to capture an eaglet for her to train. This was just the first bit of a luck in a production that the gods appear to have smiled upon, Aisholpan’s real life story mapping perfectly onto an inspirational, heroic template. Guided by narration from Star Wars alumni Daisy Ridley, we follow her as she trains her eagle, is the first girl ever to compete in the Golden Eagle Festival and endures the icy steppes as she pursues her quarry.
This makes for a series of dazzling images, Bell and his crew brilliantly capturing the awesome, austere beauty of the steppes. It looks a bit sci-fi, as if Aisholpan and her family are colonists on some distant wind-blasted planet. Drone shots and long distance photography underline the insignificance of individuals within this epic landscape, but any sense of futility or desperation is neatly undercut by the powerful symbolic imagery of a young girl taming an eagle, a condensed manifestation of all that’s windswept, majestic and wild.
The frequent shots of the eagle in flight look magnificent, from the whoosh of air as Aisholpan hurls the eagle aloft, its graceful power as it cuts through the air and finally, the termination as it zeroes in on Aisholpan, who beams with happiness as the gigantic raptor thuds onto her arm. It’s marvellous filmmaking: conjuring up involuntary gasps of awe from audiences.
Bubbling under these visual delights is a pleasantly straightforward feminism. Bell wryly cuts away from Aisholpan looking at entirely home in the wilderness to a series of pompous tribal elders in ridiculous costumes. They archly explain that a girl could never become an eagle huntress as they’re too fragile, too easily scared, cannot bond with the bird and anyway, it’s just not done. As such, watching Aisholpan bust through these various glass ceilings (leaving those stuffy elders grumpily speechless) is fist-pump worthy cinema.
You couldn’t ask for a better vehicle for the film’s gentle yet firm politics than Aisholpan: a fierce feminist by instinct rather than education. Her and her father’s simple observations that there’s no reason women can’t do what men have traditionally done efficiently bulldozes through the calcified dogma and strictures of nomadic tradition on the steppes. It makes the film pointed without being strident, Bell recognizing that the narrative and imagery speaks for itself and trusting his audience to make up their own minds.
You couldn’t ask for more than The Eagle Huntress provides. It’s a stellar documentary from top to bottom, and in betting his life savings on its success, director Otto Bell has hit the jackpot.
Feminist by nature rather than design and consistently visually dazzling, The Eagle Huntress is top flight documentary cinema.