The Eagle Huntress is a remarkably beautiful documentary focused on a fascinating subject with implications that resonate far beyond the scope of the film itself. Director Otto Bell presents the world of Kazakh eagle hunting through the lens of the first female aspirant to this traditionally male-dominated pursuit, and if the practice itself may seem distinctly foreign to Western sensibilities, the struggle to overcome deeply entrenched gender biases is all too familiar. Though the veracity of this film’s appellation as a “documentary” may be in question, its probable appeal to open-minded youngsters is not.
Bell’s film follows Aisholpan, a teen girl in the remote Altai Mountains of the Mongolian-Kazakh border, as she sets her heart on breaking into the ranks of her community’s fiercely androcentric eagle hunters. With the help of Nurgaiv, her father and most ardent advocate, Aisholpan must capture an infant eagle from its precarious cliffside nest and train it to hunt before entering into a prestigious eagle hunting competition, an event at which her father has always placed highly. Along the way she endures the scorn of village elders and the bewilderment of her mother, sisters and schoolmates as she pursues her dream. It’s blatant heartstring tugging of the basest variety, but like its protagonist, the film is largely successful in its aims.
If Huntress falls short in my critical estimation, it’s largely due to the influence its filmmakers have unquestionably exerted upon their subject. While it may not be as overtly contrived as Nanook of the North, many of the scenes feel distinctly staged, and those that don’t still bear the incontrovertible earmarks of documentary observers that affected the behavior of their subjects by virtue of their very presence. Like Schrödinger’s cat, we can only speculate as to how these events would have played out in the absence of Bell and his cameras.
What those cameras capture, however, is nothing short of magnificent. Bell and cinematographer Simon Niblett present the icy steppes and rugged mountains in all their isolated glory, but perhaps their most impressive achievement is the use of drones to capture the remarkable eagle’s point of view flight sequences that visually propel the film. It’s difficult to call to mind any doc in recent memory that has looked this outstanding, even if that visual appeal threatens to detract from the story at times.
This is a film decidedly dedicated to inspiring tween girls, which is a laudable goal, yet renders some of Bell’s directorial decisions a bit perplexing. The film opens with the slaughter of a lamb and ends with a drawn-out eagle hunt in which a fox is eventually cornered and killed, sequences which may prove too challenging for younger viewers. I have to admit I felt bad for the poor fox in particular, although I was far more put off by the film’s ponderous score and repetitive use of a song by Australian pop musician Sia.
Having been narrated and produced by Daisy “Rey from Star Wars” Ridley enhances The Eagle Huntress‘ girl-power pedigree to such an extent that I feel certain my older brother will be inexorably compelled to take my young nieces to a screening. To be fair, there are many films aimed at their demographic that have proven far less deserving of his time and effort. If grumpy Uncle Scott found The Eagle Huntress far too pat and conveniently on-message to stack up against better documentaries, they will be singularly unperturbed by my analysis, and rightfully so. This wasn’t a film made with the jaded cynicism of a sleep-deprived critic in mind, it was one tailored to the optimism of youth, and as such, I have to call it a qualified success. Rated G. Subtitled Kazakh dialogue
Opens Friday at Grail Moviehouse