A gorgeous documentary follows her bold and controversial journey
Aisholpan and White Wings. (Photo by Asher Svidensky) Sony Pictures Classics
The Eagle Huntress, a soaring documentary about a 13-year-old Mongolian girl who learns to hunt with a golden eagle, opens with an idea. The filmmakers claim that Aisholpan, in all her glory, is the first of her kind. It turns out there have been others. And Otto Bell, the film’s director, may have mistakenly taken criticism from local elders as 2000 years of patriarchy, smashing against Aisholpan’s achievements.
Instead, the comments ended up being isolated grumblings from some of the local neighbors.
These foibles only accentuate Aisholpan’s extraordinary journey to becoming the first female eagle hunter in her family. A brave young girl attempting to conquer eagle hunting—a tough task and a large part of the local Kazakh nomad culture that remains integral to the tribe’s survival—is a compelling story even with these minor errors.
As the Kazakh proverb says, “A fast horse and a soaring eagle are the wings of a nomad.” And in their culture of movement, Western ways of looking at plots and stories can shift under your feet.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]I think what modern technology allows you to do is really just catching people by surprise[/quote]
The beginnings of The Eagle Huntress\n
(Photo by Asher Svidensky) Sony Pictures Classics
“She’s more of a physical persona than a verbal one,” director Otto Bell explains about the cherubic star of The Eagle Huntress. “It took some time to build a rapport.” Aisholpan, the shy hero of the tale, needed to warm up to Bell and his crew; the scenes of their blossoming friendship help create the story of a young girl growing into conquering her dream.
Bell’s quest to locate Aisholpan began in 2014 when the director saw an article in the BBC Magazine about Aisholpan and the lives of her Kazakh tribe in the Altai mountain range in Central Asia. The story captivated him enough to hunt down Asher Svidensky, the story’s photographer, in hopes of being introduced to Aisholpan’s family.
“We had a Skype,” he says. “Then, very quickly, he sent word to the family that we were going to come and talk to them about making a film or at least understanding a bit more about their culture.”
Bell hopped a flight to Moscow, then took a connecting flight to Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia, where he and his team piled into a small twin engine plane for the trek up the mountain. He’d make seven more trips like that to complete The Eagle Hunter. By the end, he was nearly broke.
He was also facing a minor backlash. The final film, including narration by Star Wars actress Daisy Ridley, has garnered widespread critical praise and is nominated for a BAFTA (British Academy of Film And Television Arts) Award. But it is not nominated for an Oscar, and The Boston Globe panned the film, accusing Otto and his team of reducing a complicated story into easily digestible Hollywood pastiche. Others have also claimed the documentary is too good to be true. Worse, they’ve stated Bell and his team scripted the action, a claim he flatly denies.
“I think what modern technology allows you to do is really just catching people by surprise,” he explains. “I can tell you wholeheartedly that what you see on the screen is what we got.”
Otto and Aisholpan’s Journey
Aisholpan and Director Otto Bell at the Ajyal Youth Film Festival. (Photo by Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images)
What is true is that Bell’s arrival in Mongolia could not have been better timed. He stumbled into the nascent beginnings of Aisholpan’s attempt to conquer eagle hunting with her bird, White Wings. Winters are daunting, with temperatures routinely dropping down to -40 F. Hunts involve trekking several days into the snowy winter to a clearing where prey, such as wild foxes, can be spotted. Hunters work in teams, first dispatching a group to distract the animal before releasing the eagle to do the rest. Once sent to hunt, the eagle makes its decisions on the best approach to take down the prey.
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]I can tell you wholeheartedly that what you see on the screen is what we got[/quote]
The result is a mind meld of human intuition and animal bonding, and the relationship between bird and human is sacred, so they get released at the end of their service in the spring. As part of the ceremony, a sheep is butchered and placed as a thank you to the bird, who's a member of the family.
“We were very lucky to be able to film in live action,” Bell says. “To be there right at the start of the story and be able to follow it through to the end, you don’t often get that opportunity in a documentary.”
But there is more to the story of Aisholpan and White Wings than a stone cold assassin turned woman’s best friend. She is excited that the rest of the world will be able to witness her culture and their traditions, despite some members of her tribe being less than enthusiastic about her being an eagle huntress.
“Before I had some people who disagreed, were jealous. My dad’s friends too,” she explains via email. “But, now, my people call me ‘our little hero’ and they say they are proud of me.”
A girl spreads her wings
The film uses stunning images of the Central Asian steppes. (Photo by Asher Svidensky) Sony Pictures Classics
Toward the end of the film, Aisholpan arrives at a festival called the Ulgii. There, she shows precise ease and depth of skill with White Wings and goes on to win her first Eagle Hunter competition. The victory instantly becomes the center of the feel-good documentary. But it also shows the blossoming relationship with her father, a 12th generation eagle hunter. When asked about her father she says, “I have a good relationship with my parents. I listen to them. They are the one who brought me to this success.”
And what success it’s been. Otto revealed to us that he cut Aisholpan in on the film’s purse. She wants to be a surgeon, and the money will go toward allowing her to learn medicine anywhere in the world. The family is meeting Bell in London in the spring to attend his wedding.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]To be there right at the start of the story and be able to follow it through to the end, you don’t often get that opportunity in a documentary.[/quote]
So with her, the line of Eagle Huntresses continues, even if she is the first in 12 generations in her tribe. The egalitarianism of Kazakh culture ensures their survival—particularly since climate change roars in to threaten their way of life.
Winters are growing noticeably more difficult in the mountains, and entire herds can get wiped out overnight in a severe storm. Members of her community have had to head into the city to seek a life. Despite this, Aisholpan trusts the strength of their tribal traditions to survive.
“The kinship between Golden Eagle and my ancestors continued for 2000 years,” she says. “It did not change no matter how their lives change. It’s the same for me.”