In the mountainous wastelands of Mongolia live groups of nomadic tribesmen that have passed down the secret of bonding with and training the eagles that live in these harsh conditions to hunt the arctic animals indigenous to the area for food and fur so they can survive the brutal winters. These secrets for generations have been passed down from father to son, but when the patriarch of the Kazakh family sees that his young daughter Aisolpan is a natural drawn to the art of eagle hunting he breaks with tradition and decides to train her. He invites scorn and resistance from the elders of all the local tribes. If this sounds like a fairly conventional story with the only truly unique take being the involvement of eagle hunting, you would mostly be correct, but this story has one more major difference – it’s not fictional, this is a documentary.
The first thing that needs to be said about The Eagle Huntress is that it is absolutely gorgeous. The landscapes, while barren and harsh, are nonetheless beautiful to look at, the cinematography is artful and I can’t imagine how much footage had to have been taken and pored through to find a movie that looks as if every shot was planned and posed even when you know that can’t have been the case most of the time considering the subject matter, and the eagles themselves are truly awesome to see in action. While I was given a real glimpse into their life, and saw the harsh conditions these people live in every day, the beauty of this movie and the connection these people still in this time manage to have with the nature around them made me wish I could be an eagle hunter.
The Eagle Huntress is also a story about the overcoming of long held prejudices. Even the most far away tribespeople who have clung to long held traditions cannot escape the culture of the modern world, for better or for worse, and the changing of mindsets toward “the fairer and weaker sex” is spreading even to the remote area of Bayan-Olgii. People can look at a young girl and recognize her as something more than a person who will be raised to cook, have babies, and care for the household while the men are off hunting (in fact, I believe the movie tricks us slightly as to how resistant men are to the idea of Aisholpan learning to hunt with eagles, but more on that in a little bit). Aisholpan’s father doesn’t care that she’s a girl, he just cares that she’s been staring at the eagles her whole life and recognizes that she has a natural bond with them and decides that she is to carry on his legacy with no thought to anything else other than her happiness and her talent. To see this bond between father and daughter, to see her confidence nurtured by her supportive family and her own natural talent, and to see her put to bed all doubts that a girl can do the same thing generations of only men before her can is the real heart of this piece.
I admit to having a few doubts as to the authenticity of the implied level of resistance to Aisholpan’s training that people feel throughout the film. We are told over and over again that people would react harshly to her and that she would have to prove herself above and beyond what any man could do, but aside from a few harsh glances here and there and some raised eyebrows and quick laughs, most of the people in the film actually seem more intrigued and impressed with Aisholpan’s abilities than angry and resistant. I wonder if the producers of the film just didn’t feel there was enough story without some form of antagonist, and so cut film and perhaps even staged a small handful of scenes in order to give the illusion that there was more anger at what Aisholpan and father were doing than actually existed. I have no doubt that there were plenty of people with a “girls can’t and shouldn’t do this” attitude, but in the more obviously candid parts of the film I never saw much indication that people held much, if any, contempt toward Aisholpan or her father and actually seemed quite helpful and impressed. While I don’t know for sure, I think the anger toward Aisholpan was mostly manufactured for dramatic purposes, and maybe to add to the girl power themes present in the film, and if that’s the case it really is too bad, as the story of a 13 year-old girl capturing, training, and hunting with an eagle in this incredibly harsh terrain is drama and girl power story enough on its own, in this critic’s opinion.
Often, the best documentaries aren’t those that teach a lesson or give a point of view, but manage to capture just the right slice of life at just the right time to give us a story as dramatic as the best fictions. The Eagle Huntress is a coming of age story, a man vs nature story, a story about girl power and overcoming prejudices, a feel good movie, and a family drama all rolled into one, all with gorgeous images to look at and a fascinating culture to learn about. And, the eagles, the majestic, gorgeous eagles that are so breath taking I don’t care that this is an incomplete sentence.
Rating: 8.0 out of 10