“The Eagle Huntress” is a film that takes us to a world we’ve never been to and gives us an amazingly candid view into a culture and tradition that few are aware of. For over a thousand years, eagles have been trained to hunt alongside men. This story however, centers on a 13-year-old girl, Aishoplan, who lives with her nomadic family in Mongolia while also attending boarding school. Aishoplan has a distinguishing ambition: to be the first female eagle huntress. In this documentary lovingly crafted by Director Otto Bell, we follow Aishoplan on her journey and come to root for her in a rare and powerful way. Sparse and tasteful voice over narration for the film comes from British actress Daisy Ridley, though little talk is needed – this story of father-daughter bonding and intergenerational inspiration unfolds with elegant visual storytelling that captures both the stunning natural world and the bonds that are formed within it.
Aisholpan’s father, Nurgaiv, is himself an eagle hunter. He teaches her how to catch a young golden eagle and how to train it to hunt other animals for their meat and fur. After she accomplishes this first feat, she sets her sights on competing at the annual eagle festival. We see and hear several elders voice their objections and provide a number of shallow excuses as to why girls should not participate. Both father and daughter seem to humbly absorb these darts and become doubly resolved to prepare for the festival which involves a series of exercises to demonstrate the beauty, speed and agility of the bird as well as the strength of the relationship between the eagle and its trainer.
The Eagle Festival in the film, like Teatown’s Annual EagleFest, is an inspiring event to witness. This festival, however, takes place not at Croton Point Park but in the Mongolian mountain town of Olgii. This scene has some of the most memorable shots in the film. Cinematographer, Simon Niblett, masterfully takes us into the sky, with dazzling “eagle’s point of view” shots from drones in the air to more traditional, yet expertly framed shots of Aishoplan’s view on the ground. The result is a palpable sense of the connection between the girl and her bird, and the competition is truly exciting for us as we pull for our humble and determined team. The camera seizes a beautiful and touching moment at the festival where father Nurgaiv, beaming with pride and with cracking voice, says “come my daughter, stand by me.”
Otto Bell’s film makes us believers in the power of “belief” itself. Aishoplan’s toughness, humility and patience she draws from her father. She then practices it with her eagle. In this way, it is a simple, timeless and resonant tale of how inspiration travels from one being to another. Nurgaiv tells Aishoplan while leading her through her training, “your eagle has real talent – she just needs her moment.” The “Eagle Huntress” allows all of us be there when the moment happens.
The film has already garnered rave reviews and heaps of praise at both Sundance and Telluride Festivals, and opens publically this weekend. Check local listings.
Kevin Carter is Executive Director at Teatown Lake Reservation. Teatown is a 1,000 acre Nature Preserve and Environmental Education Center, and host of the annual Teatown Hudson River EagleFestsm to take place on February 11, 2017 at Croton Point Park.