At the age of 10, Aisholpan, a nomadic Kazakh child of the Altai Mountains in Mongolia, decided she wanted to be an eagle huntress. Her father, Nurgaiv, is a master eagle hunter, another in a long tradition of familial hunters handed down from father to son. Now, at age 13, Nurgaiv believes his daughter can do whatever her brothers can, and he prepares her to fulfill her dream.
The Mongolian steppe provides a vast and breathtaking backdrop for this documentary, "The Eagle Huntress", by Otto Bell and narrated and executive produced by Daisy Ridley, Rey from 2015 "Star Wars: The Force Awakens". He chronicles Aisholpan's journey to become a true eagle huntress. Eagle hunting is an arduous skill which requires endurance and learned commands both on the part of the hunter and the eagle. To train, Aisholpan worked with her father's eagle, but after a time it becomes necessary for Aisholpan to capture her own balapan (young eagle).
One of the most harrowing sequences in "The Eagle Huntress" has Nurgaiv lowering Aisholpan down the sheer face of a mountain to reach the eagle nest containing two balapans. With the mother eagle circling overhead, and Bell and Israeli photographer, Asher Svidensky, perched precariously close by to capture this moment, Aisholpan adroitly manages to pluck the female (females are the best hunters --- does that surprise you?) baby out of the nest and gets pulled to safety by her father.
Therein lies the basis for "The Eagle Huntress". It is such a beautiful story about one young girl's supreme determination to succeed and the unyielding support of her parents. Bell interviews many elder eagle hunters who are quite clear in their disdain for Aisholpan's quest. Women are "too fragile" or "not brave enough" to hunt are the universal responses. But Nurgaiv and Aisholpan remain undeterred by this negativity.
"The Eagle Huntress" began when Bell saw Svidensky's photos of Aisholpan on a mountaintop, casting her majestic eagle into the sky. These remarkable pictures caught the attention of many, but Bell jumped at the chance to make this incredible story into a documentary. He and Svidensky traveled to Olgii, a small village in the Bayan-Olgii province in northwest Mongolia to meet Aisholpan and her family at their ger (nomadic dwelling).
The initial footage was shot by Bell, but eventually renowned Director of Photography, Simon Niblett, joined the small crew to bring the gorgeous scenery of the Mongolian steppe to life. "The Eagle Huntress" is an incredibly spectacular film. Though Nurgaiv and Aisholpan's mother, Almagul, are shy and private people, they understood the opportunity Bell was giving them to showcase the supreme harshness of becoming a true master eagle hunter, and the distinct and profound courage displayed by Aisholpan. Watching Aisholpan and Nurgaiv galloping across the frozen tundra on their sturdy ponies carrying their eagles aloft is a sight to behold. None of us would last a nanosecond trying this, and yet Aisholpan and her father do this for days in search of a fox. Because, to be a true eagle hunter, you and your eagle must complete a first kill.
This is the entire point of Bell's exquisite doc. Yes, awards and recognition for your efforts are great, but the most important aspect of Aisholpan's feat is her own feeling of self-satisfaction knowing what she has accomplished, and spending such precious time with her biggest fan --- her father!
Opinion: Strong See It Now!
With temperatures reaching 40 below zero amid a frozen tundra in the far corners of Mongolia, a 13-year-old girl dares to rock the boat of 12 male-dominated generations. Next thing you know, little Aisholpan will run for president of her country. Actually she wants to be a doctor --- and after watching this film, there is no doubt she will succeed.
The Mongolian steppe is the setting for this most unusual documentary, one in which Aisholpan vies with adult male counterparts to determine who can best train a wild eagle. Part of the ritual demands that she descend a rocky tor to get within reach of an eagle's nest and steal a young female eagle called a balapan. Aided by her father holding one end of a rope, this is amazing footage unlike anything you've ever seen, outside the realm, perhaps, of CG-enhanced images. To make the theft more dramatic the threat of the mama eagle protecting her young is a constant one.
But the most riveting sequence in "The Eagle Huntress" is the stalking of a fox by the now-trained eagle. Bell devotes a great deal of time filming this, and it is actually gut-wrenching, even though the most graphic aspects are not shown. You can ease your mind, though, by borrowing from "The Lion King", as Mufasa says, it's simply the "circle of life".
As we see in the actual competition, one of the most significant tests has entrants, while perched on a horse, calling their eagles from afar. They are rated on how long it takes their eagle to go from Point A --- atop a cliff --- to Point B --- the outstretched arm of the caller. Considering that these majestic, 15-pound birds can reach speeds of 190 mph, it's quite remarkable.
The filmmakers utilized modern technology to capture much of their footage, from drones to GoPro cameras attached to both Aisholpan and the animals. First-time feature director Otto Bell hired Daisy Ridley of "Star Wars" fame to narrate. And look for "The Eagle Huntress" to appear in a future animated film, as the rights to this picture were snatched up by 20th Century Fox Animation.
Opinion: See It Now!