"The Eagle Huntress" is a new documentary that follows the pioneering efforts of a 13-year-old girl named Aisholpan, who wants to be the world's first female eagle hunter.
It's important to note that "eagle hunter" does not mean "a person who hunts eagles." Rather, eagle hunters are part of a remote nomadic culture in the Altai Mountains of Northwestern Mongolia that, amazingly, employs the use of trained birds of prey to hunt for foxes. We are introduced to the practice in the film's opening sequence high on a mountaintop, as a veteran hunter sets his eagle free following seven years of service, after sacrificing a ram as a sort of retirement gift.
From here, we jump into Aisholpan's life, which straddles the worlds of her native culture and the advances of the West. Her home is in the wilderness with her family, who live in elaborate tents, but for five days a week, she and her siblings attend a nearby school, where, among other things, they learn English.
Aisholpan's professional aspiration is to become a doctor, but her dream is to join her culture's eagle hunter tradition. The only problem is that the practice is passed from father to son, and as a few interviews with local elders reveal, no one is too keen to let a girl in on the game.
Aisholpan's story is broken into three segments. In the first, she and her father, Nurgaiv, head out to find her an eagle, which requires maneuvering down a treacherous cliff to a nest. In the second, Aisholpan competes in her first Eagle Hunter Festival, where she has to prove her skills and face the resistance of her community for the first time. In the last passage, training and local politics are put in the background as Aisholpan joins her father for a real-life eagle hunt in frigid conditions that will test the limits of her abilities.
It's a fun story arc, and Aisholpan is a sweet protagonist who is easy to cheer for. As far as the story goes, a lot more tension comes from Aisholpan's adventures in practice than from any local cultural pressure. Director Otto Bell includes cutaways of various people making critical remarks about Aisholpan being a girl, but aside from that, no one does much to get in her way.
That last point may have a lot to do with the documentary film crew following her around. "The Eagle Huntress" is a fascinating look at a remote culture, but since that culture is being infiltrated by a camera crew, it's easy to wonder if the results are as authentic as they may have been otherwise. Footage at the festival reveals numerous photographers perched on the mountains, documenting the event in a bold clash of the modern world with the historic practice they are trying to capture.
One thing that isn't in dispute is the beauty of the area. The landscape of Mongolia is a silent but powerful character throughout the film, spoiling us with long, rolling vistas and white tundras that scale rocky mountains. Combined with the footage of the eagles themselves, "The Eagle Huntress" is a rich visual experience. When you see the size of the talons digging into Aisholpan's arm, you'll be compelled to respect her efforts regardless of her gender.
Like most entries in the Sundance Film Festival, "The Eagle Huntress" is not rated but might receive a PG rating for some animal-related gore and violence. It is presented in Kazakh with English subtitles.
"The Eagle Huntress" is not rated, but would likely be PG for some animal-related gore and violence; running time 87 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.