Gorgeous Eagle Huntress an Inspiring Human Spectacle
Aisholpan Nurgaiv is a 13-year-old Mongolian girl who dreams of one day growing up to be a doctor. She also longs to be a renowned eagle hunter like her father, Rys Nurgaiv, a master of the ancient, time-honored tradition who has won multiple awards for his skill, prowess and ability to train eagles to do what he asks of them. But while there is no discrimination where it comes to hunting with eagles, Mongolian elders aren’t exactly keen for women to partake in what has for centuries been a male-dominated activity. Yet Aisholpan is undeterred, and with the blessing of both her parents, including her more tradition-minded mother Kuksyegyen Almagul, this youngster will find, train, compete and hunt with a giant eagle of her own.
Empowering and imaginative, The Eagle Huntress is easy to get excited about. Director Otto Bell’s film doesn’t reinvent the wheel, doesn’t get as introspective as say a Werner Herzog nature documentary would, but it’s just so gosh darn inspiring and so gorgeously photographed none of that matters particularly much. Aisholpan’s story is instantly relatable, crossing cultural barriers with ease, and by the time she’s riding across an icy tundra hunting foxes alongside her father with her eagle shooting across the sky it took all my self-control not to rise triumphantly to my feet and let loose a hearty cheer.
There are so many moments to love. Aisholpan descending down the side of a massive cliff to capture her eagle, Nurgaiv guiding her steps from above. Aisholpan learning the ins and outs of training her eagle, including the building of the physical strength that will be required when she takes the bird into competition. Aisholpan triumphantly using what she’s learned to face off against 70 skilled competitors at the annual Golden Eagle Festival, her bird performing brilliantly in large part thanks to her training. Aisholpan heading into the harsh mountains of the Mongolian tundra to prove herself once and for all in 40-degrees below zero temperatures, she and her eagle battling the elements as they hunt a cunning fox, Nurgaiv cheering their every move.
Bell spends most of his time focusing on Aisholpan and Nurgaiv’s relationship while brief interviews with Mongolian elders (most of whom dislike the idea of a girl becoming an eagle hunter) are interspersed throughout along with snippets of the teen in school with her classmates sitting alongside conversations with her Almagul. It’s all very nice, and not a second is boring, but the film can still feel like PBS nature special more than a feature-length cinematic endeavor, and it’s hard not to get the idea that there might be bigger, more complex issues at play that remain unexplored.
But Aisholpan is a fantastic heroine, a trailblazer who deserves to be cheered as she overcomes every obstacle put in front of her. Same goes for her parents, Nurgaiv and Almagul proving to be progressive voices in a world that, while not actively trying to silence them, doesn’t seem at all interested in seeing equality between the genders become a universal norm. As already stated, there’s also some incredible cinematography, director of photography Simon Niblett and editor Pierre Takal doing exceptional work in order to give Aisholpan’s story life. The Eagle Huntress is a rousing adventure and a soaring testament to the strength of the human spirit, this vibrant, electrifying teenager an inspirational role model all of Mongolia should be more than proud of.
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)