‘The Eagle Huntress’: Two Inspiring Stories from Mongolia

The soaring documentary “The Eagle Huntress” is really two stories: One about a father and daughter breaking male tradition, and two, about how social media brought a photographer, director and an isolated family together to tell the story. “The Eagle Huntress,” which opens on  Nov. 11 at the Pasadena Laemmle Playhouse 7, is an inspirational, almost unbelievable documentary for fathers and daughters and aspiring filmmakers.

The movie begins with an experienced Kazakh eagle hunter (Dalaikhan) on his horse traveling up a snowy mountain. On his right hand, he holds a 15-lb. golden eagle aloft. He’s setting his eagle free after seven years of service, leaving it a newly slaughtered sheep to feed on. This is part of the tradition of the eagle hunters of Altai Mountains in Mongolia. The Kazakh are descendants of Turkic and medieval Mongolian tribes.

Dalaikhan is a friend of Nurgaiv, the father of the 13-year-old Aisholpan. Nurgaiv believes in his daughter, saying in Kazakh,  “There is no gender discrimination when it comes to hunting  with eagles.”  Nurgaiv is the 11th generation of eagle hunters. He has twice won the Golden Eagle Festival competition in Ölgii. “Aisholpan is a very brave girl,” he comments. While other elderly male eagle hunters are doubtful, Nurgaiv’s father is not. Aisholpan has both her father and grandfather supporting her.

Aisholpan has already been practicing with her father’s own golden eagle, but now she must capture her own eaglet during the short time when the eagle is old enough to be on its own, but has not yet learned to fly.

Nurgaiv and Aisholpan ride horses up to a craggy mountain. Using a ropes, Nurgaiv precariously lowers his daughter over a ledge to the nest while the mother eagle circles above. Aisholpan chooses one of the two eaglets to train. After she covers the large bird with a thick carpet, Nurgaiv pulls the bird up before he brings his daughter back up.

Now Aisholpan and her father train the young eagle. Months later, travel to Ölgii where Aisholpan competes against 70 veteran eagle hunters in various tests and (spoiler alert) wins. Still some male eagle hunters doubt whether Aisholpan will be able to hunt.

The film follows Aisholpan and her father on her first hunt with her eagle. To be clear, Aisholpan is not the first modern Kazakh eagle hunter, Makpal Abdrazakova, a lawyer from Kazakhstan is. Aisholpan is the first Kazakh female to compete at the Golden Eagle Festival in Ölgii and she is the first huntress in her family.

You might be wondering how first-time director Otto Bell and his crew found Aisholpan and her father who live in a remote part of the world. Bell saw photos by Israeli photographer Asher Svidensky in the BBC News. Belly found Svidensky on Facebook and discussed making a documentary as Svidensky’s photo of Aisholpan went viral.

Not wanting to be scooped, Bell,  Svidensky and cameraman Chris Raymond hopped on a plane to Ulaanbataar, soared over the vast Bayan-Ölgii province in northwest Mongolia in a twin-prop plane to the small village of Ölgii, and then took a two-hour ride on a rickety Soviet bus to the remote mountainside where Aisholpan’s family live. The very morning of their arrival, Nurgaiv and Aisholpan were off to capture the young eagle.  The sequence was captured with Raymond’s Canon C300 Mark 1 (1080p), Svidensky’s DSLR and a tiny GoPro camera.

To film the hunt that ends the movie, Bell needed more funds and sent a ten-minute teaser trailer to Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me” and “Comic-Con Episode Four: A Fan’s Hope”) who came on as a producer. Besides helping secure additional financing, Spurlock also arranged for Daisy Ridley to come on as an executive producer and narrate, linking Ridley’s “Star Wars” character, Rey, with the courageous Aisholpan. Although in the documentary the hunt seems to be only one day, it actually took 22 days in harsh winter weather to film.

In watching Aisholpan’s personal victory, you’ll also see Bell’s victory in recording and bringing this story to the world. “The Eagle Huntress” is about a tradition transformed and a tradition carried on as well as being willing to pursue one’s dreams despite what others may say. “The Eagle Huntress” is in English and Kazakh with English subtitles.

–Originally published in the Pasadena Weekly

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