As children, we look up to our parents and are impacted by their example whether positive or negative. So why would it be alarming that 13 year old Aisholpan Nurgaiv would want to follow in her father’s footsteps as a hunter in Kazakh tradition? Perhaps because for centuries, the role of eagle hunter has been held by men. The new documentary, The Eagle Huntress, follows Aisholpan on her harrowing journey to buck tradition and make her family proud.
The film introduces us to the Nurgaiv family in the mountains of Mongolia. The tight knit family lives an isolated but busy life. We find Aisholpan on the cusp of getting her own golden eagle, the beautiful bird used to assist in hunting. The eagles aren’t just handed to hunters. Hunters have to scale the mountains to get eaglets at a time when they can’t yet fly in order to raise and train them. With the help of her father, she does, and it’s absolutely breathtaking!
Armed with her eagle, Aisholpan trains to compete in the annual eagle hunter festival. Traditionally an all male competition, eyes roll and heads turn as she rides in with her father. Yet that doesn’t stop Aisholpan. Perhaps her youth allows her to ignore her haters, or maybe it’s the insurmountable love and pride that her father instills in her. Whatever it is, Aisholpan is confident and unwavering in her quest to be an eagle hunter. Which gives us comical moments with the quick juxtaposition of the elders talking against her, and then being forced to eat humble pie quickly after.
Director Otto Bell uses his camera and drone technology to beautifully capture the unforgiving landscape, while telling an intimate story. This film could only be told now. Using his life savings to help fund the film, drone footage gives us beautiful aerials while mountable cameras allow us to see Aisholpan’s first person view as she scales the mountain to retrieve her eaglet. While the visuals and David vs. Goliath story is incredible, Bell never loses sight of the heart of the film. The relationship between Aisholpan and her father is a universal, tangible display of love.
While viewing The Eagle Huntress you’ll forget that you’re watching a documentary because it is so gorgeously shot that it looks more like a narrative feature. It has everything from action to comedy within the film and manages to keep a complex story simple. While Aisholpan is a heroine in her own right with the amazing feats she accomplishes, she’s also a teenage girl who likes to laugh with her friends at school. Honestly, that’s what makes her that much more awesome!
Check out my interview with director Otto Bell and the film's stars here: