The Eagle Huntress tells the story of Aisholpan, a 13 year old girl who dreams of becoming an eagle hunter. Aisholpan comes from a long line of nomadic eagle hunters, for generations her family has handed down the tradition - but never has a female member been allowed to taken part in the practice.
And some of the old-timers aren't happy. When asked about Aisholpan's dream, the elders trot out the old arguments: girls can't hunt, they are too weak, they should stay in the home and leave it to the men. But Aisholpan's father is having none of it and sets out to teach his daughter how to become an eagle hunter. And early in the film, as if to counter the doubters, Aisholpan is shown scaling a rocky cliff face, high above the frigid tundra, to capture her own eaglet from its nest. It's a heart-stopping moment.
After raising and training her eagle, Aisholpan sets out with her father (a day's ride on horseback through the remote countryside) to take part in the annual eagle festival, which sees handlers from far and wide (many of them with decades of experience) converge to test their skills. But a competition is one thing - and after it, Aisholpan must prove she can tackle the high mountains in winter, hunting for foxes with just her dad, their horses and their eagles.
Directed by Otto Bell, The Eagle Huntress is remarkable documentary film featuring some of the most magnificent cinematography you are ever likely to see. The dramatic, intimidating beauty of the Mongolian steppe is breathtaking - the fact that humans can survive in this landscape amazing by itself. The shots of the eagles in flight are similarly awe-inspiring, captured with traditional techniques and modern gadgetry. But it is Aisholpan's story at the heart of the film - she is shown giggling with her school friends and looking after her siblings, as well as climbing mountains and letting a huge eagle land on her arm. It's a remarkable contrast.
For all its beauty, the film is not without its faults. Things seem to move inexplicably quickly. What's missing is a bit more context, a bit more background to the story being told. Aisholpan catches her eagle, trains it and is then participating at the festival, easily competing against people who have been eagle hunting for years. Whether some of the film's scenes were staged or re-enacted for the camera will also be asked by some.
But The Eagle Huntress is still a beautiful film with a simple story told with exquisite cinematography. More than worth a look.