By Carter Glace, Staff Writer
For centuries in the Mongolian countryside, the Kazakh people have practiced the sport of eagle hunting. While they no longer need to travel across the icy wilderness for food, the tradition has still been passed down through generations for ceremony and competition.
However, up until now, eagle hunting has been almost completely a male-dominated activity. This is where huntress Aisholpan’s story begins. “The Eagle Huntress” tells the story of the 13-year-old girl who looks to become the first female eagle hunter in 12 generations. Training with her father to enter the Golden Eagle Festival in Olgii she proves herself by trekking frozen mountains in search of foxes.
The film is at its best when it focuses on Aisholpan and her family, from which all of the film’s strengths stem from. Aisholpan herself is an endearing figure who always seems sincere and enthusiastic. It’s hard not to empathize with her quest to break boundaries. She ends up becoming a humble hero.
It’s refreshing to see a family fully supporting their child in her bold endeavor. They never question the idea of her becoming an eagle huntress, resulting in the moments with the family being warm and pleasant joys.
These moments are also where we also get the engaging history and culture of Kazakh eagle hunting. In bits and pieces, we are given interesting insight into this centuries long tradition, such as the concept of a hunter freeing their eagle after seven years, the tandem of two hunters working together or even the tradition of hunting in Aisholpan’s family. While the huntress is one of the most interesting stories, the film allows for the rich history to be a rich subtext.
“The Eagle Huntress” is also a gorgeous film. Shot in Mongolia, the jaw-dropping landscapes are on full display along the frozen terrain across the country. This is a perfect storm of compelling story being set in a compelling location, capturing an isolated place at the edge of modernity, history and wilderness.
However, the film isn’t without its flaws. Most of its issues arise in terms of structure. This is director Otto Bell’s first full-length feature documentary, and at times, it shows. The pace tends to lag as concepts and ideas are repeated.
The film also feels like it has two moments that could have been appropriate conclusions. Initially, it builds up to the competition, which is tense, exciting and immensely empowering, but then the film continues on as Aisholpan goes on a real hunt. Again, it is exciting, gorgeously shot and intense when eagles begin fighting foxes. In the same way as the competition did, the scene feels like a second ending.
It’s also worth wondering if the film would benefit more from diving into the lore and history of eagle hunters, but at the same time that might sacrifice the brisk pace and focus on the huntress herself. Still, gripes aside, “The Eagles Huntress” is an endearing, joyful and beautifully shot story.
Bell claims he first discovered Aisholpan from a single image and BCC headline, a reminder that incredible, compelling and rewarding stories can come from anywhere. Given the current climate, a story of a girl dedicating her life to overcoming this male-dominated tradition is highly empowering.
“The Eagle Huntress” was released on Nov. 2, 2016 and is playing at Landmark Sunshine Cinemas and Lincoln Plazas Cinema 6.