The Eagle Huntress (2016)
Dir: Otto Bell
This is an engaging documentary that shows a fascinating culture and tradition in a beautiful setting, made compelling by the endearing family at the heart of it.
Aisholpan, a 13 year old girl in Mongolia, wants to follow in her father and grandfather’s footsteps, getting her own eagle and training it to hunt, though it’s traditionally the men who continue this tradition.
Making a documentary that really benefits from the big screen experience can be a challenge but this has some incredible scenery, cinematic sweeping landscapes and the fact that majestic eagles in flight are always stunning to watch. What makes the film work as well as it does though is the subject, not just this culture of hunting with eagles, more specifically Aisholpan and her family. She’s a great presence, there’s real warmth, enthusiasm and a slight mischievous streak to Aisholpan who we follow for about a year. Her parents are great, especially her father who trains her in how to raise an Eaglet, accompanying her throughout her journey. He is brilliantly supportive, defending his daughter against any naysayers and we warm to the family very quickly.
I’m not entirely sure how much the assertion that she’s the ‘first girl’ to do this is correct, though the film is edited very much to make the most of that point, returning to the idea throughout. At times we see village elders sat either in what’s taken to be disapproving silence, or stating why a girl isn’t up to the task. She ultimately proves them wrong, and there’s some humour gained from that, again made the most of by the editing. What’s certain though is she’s determined, shown to be just as capable as any other hunter, in fact more so at times, which makes her a fantastic character to follow and a brilliant role model for young girls, so the film has been edited in such a way as to avoid showing too much of the hunting so that younger audiences can see and enjoy it.
Daisy Ridley (‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’) apparently saw an early edit of the film and was eager to join the production, so she is credited as a co-executive producer as well as being the narrator. Sadly though she does it well, I don’t think her occasional commentary added all that much to the film, in fact I believe it was added after the film had premiered, maybe more to make the most of Ridley’s star-power than for necessity. The narration was only in a few places but I think what she’s saying could have been just as easily included through conversation between Aisholpan and her father rather than needing any commentary at all. All the people featured express themselves so well that they would easily cover the points that need to be clearly explained if given the chance.
Ultimately this is an enjoyable documentary with a very interesting subject, though the film-making itself takes a back-set to the story of this remarkable girl and her beautiful eagle. I saw it in a packed cinema, with a 5-year-old girl who thought she was wonderful and asked her mum if she could have an eagle of her own too, so it clearly managed to tell the story in a way that’s appealing to a wide and appreciative audience.
‘The Eagle Huntress’ is nominated for the BAFTA for ‘Best Documentary’ which I don’t think it’ll win as even though it’s beautifully shot and a captivating subject, it needed a few small tweaks to make it even better.