Thirteen-year-old schoolgirl Aisholpan, the subject of Otto Bell’s exciting documentary The Eagle Huntress, seems ready-made for conversion into the heroine of a trite “inspirational” narrative travelogue — the kind that casts an up-and-coming Hollywood starlet in the title role and uses handier locations, like the Rockies, to stand in for Aisholpan’s family’s ancestral hunting grounds in the Altai Mountains, in the corner of Mongolia, Kazakhstan, China, and Russia in Central Asia. So you’re advised to see Bell’s doc before it gets remade and ruined. (Reportedly, the property has already been optioned as a potential animated feature.)
Females had never been considered as either hunters or eagle trainers in the nomadic Kazakh culture in which Aisholpan Nurgaiv lives with her family. So it’s a bold move when she and her father go up the mountain from their yurt on the steppes to capture an eaglet to help them catch foxes and other fur-bearing varmints. It’s a personal self-reliance project for Aisholpan, who has always loved working with animals, with her father’s wholehearted encouragement. But first there’s the reluctance of tribal elders to overcome, and the definitive test for the girl and her pet at the annual Eagle Festival.
The snowy, rugged scenery is magnificent, captured by British cinematographer Simon Niblett, with a Go-Pro sequence shot by Aisholpan as she rappels down a cliff to the eagle’s nest. The setting of a frozen lake at -40F is especially breathtaking. And we observe how the family lives in the desolate-but-beautiful landscape. Except for four-wheel-drive SUVs intermittently taking the place of ponies, they live more or less as they always have. Bell, a UK native now based in the US who previously made his living shooting “branded content” videos, provides two kinds of thrills in The Eagle Huntress — the ethnographic and the gee-whiz type — with his colorful profile of Aisholpan and the Kazakh people. This UK/US/Mongolia co-prod is a must-see.