The Eagle Huntress
This documentary co-produced by Daisy Ridley (who also narrates) and Morgan Spurlock takes a look at Aisholpan Nurgaiv, a 13 year old Kazakh girl living in the Altai mountains of Mongolia whose main goal in life is to become an eagle huntress, an important tradition in these nomadic tribes as these birds of prey are used to hunt for foxes to make into fur hats to keep out the -40 winter chill. She is actively encouraged to follow her dreams by Rys, her eagle hunter father, and has also earned the support of the rest of her family and classmates. However, some elders in the tribe disapprove of a woman taking this role and doubt that she will succeed.
We follow Aisholpan and her father as she captures a young eagle from its nest, trains it, enters the Golden Eagle Festival at Olgii and - in the ultimate test of her legitimacy - goes hunting for a fox in the snow-covered mountains in winter.
The Eagle Huntress has won a clutch of awards and, while I have some slight reservations, it’s not hard to see why. At times, the feel is less dry documentary and more adventure cum inspirational parable as it follows Aisholpan through some scenes of physical danger (shimmying down a rope on a cliff face to an eagle’s nest, horse riding on slippery mountain slopes with the clear risk of it sliding towards a nearby precipice) and triumphing over adversity by breaking traditional gender rules. It’s hard not to like and, at times, quite suspenseful, exciting and even slightly funny as we see the bemused reactions of the more conservative members of the Kazakh tribes. The cinematography is breathtaking, effectively capturing the desolate vastness of the Altai mountains and the regal beauty of its central bird. I also enjoyed seeing the colourful traditional garb, the simplicity of nomadic yurt-based life and Aisholpan’s clear respect and love for her feathered charge.
However, the feeling is inescapable that it tries too hard to play itself up via obviously manipulative devices - the soaring soundtrack choices being the most blatant example. The central story is terrific and fascinating as it is, and to my mind the obvious attempts to tug on the heartstrings add a dimension of artificiality that only serves to slightly diminish its greatness. There’s also a sense that some of Aisholpan’s great achievements are sprung as surprises on the audience, with the sense of the hard toil in getting to those points tending to feel under-recorded.
The overall feeling is one of being entertained but slightly undernourished. However, it’s still well worth seeing for the visual spectacle and sense of adventurous sweep.
Runtime: 87 mins
Dir: Otto Bell
Starring: Daisy Ridley (narrator), Aisholpan Nurgaiv, Rys Nurgaiv