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‘The Eagle Huntress’ Review: Crowd-Pleasing Documentary Brings Feminism to Unexpected Arena

Otto Bell's festival favorite, narrated by Daisy Ridley, features a real-life superhero.

The Eagle Huntress

“The Eagle Huntress”

Chances are strong that the vast majority of viewers who take in Otto Bell’s crowd-pleasing documentary “The Eagle Huntress” will approach the material with little, if any, knowledge of its subject: the time-honored Eurasian falconry tradition of eagle-hunting. That’s about to change in a big way. Featuring a story so readymade for the big screen — and, yes, Fox has already optioned the film for an animated version — that it feels almost unbelievable, Bell’s feature directorial debut is bolstered immeasurably by a captivating leading (little) lady and a story that transcends time and location. Aided by smart and simple narration from Daisy Ridley, the result is an all-ages outing about tradition, respect, family and, yes, the power of feminism to positively change lives.

Bell’s film follows 13-year-old Aisholpan, a Kazakh kid with one main aspiration — to be an eagle huntress. It may sound like a simple enough request, but Aisholpan’s big dream (alongside another desire to become a doctor) isn’t a common one. In fact, she’d be the very first of her kind, at least in her eagle-hunting-crazed region. Aisholpan comes from a well-regarded and deeply respected line of eagle hunters — all men, naturally — and has spent her entire life aspiring to join their ranks, fueled primarily by her glowing respect for the birds and her obvious admiration for her accomplished hunter father. Luckily for Aisholpan, her immediate family is very supportive of her choice, though they may be the only ones.

READ MORE: ‘Weiner,’ Yes; ‘The Eagle Huntress,’ No: The 15 Documentaries on the DOC NYC Short List

The film treats viewers to the full scope of a hunter’s relationship with their feathered partners it opens with an older hunter engaging in a ceremony that delivers his eagle back to the wild after seven years together, a tradition of the culture, and the film eventually shows scenes of training, bonding and even baby eaglet capturing — and it also pays close attention to the sexism that has long dominated the sport. Although Aisholpan’s family are strong supporters of her dreams in particular and feminism and equality at large, Bell makes it plain that they are outliers in the culture, at least as it applies to eagle hunting. Utilizing a coterie of elder eagle hunters to provide commentary that essentially boils down to “this sport is not for girls, they are weak,” Bell frequently cuts back to them to weigh in on the tremendous strides the young huntress is making. They’re not having it.

Alma Dalaykan, Nurgaiv Rys, Aisholpan Nurgaiv and director Otto Bell

Alma Dalaykan, Nurgaiv Rys, Aisholpan Nurgaiv and director Otto Bell

Daniel Bergeron

“It is not a choice, it is a calling,” one of the film’s subjects tells us early on, and Aisholpan’s steely determination prove that to be true at every turn. Mostly unbothered by the naysayers — at least until she meets them face to face — Aisholpan goes about her work diligently and with nothing short of pluck. “The Eagle Huntress” could happily operate as some kind of superhero origin story, though it would be one marked a series of essential lessons, rather than high-octane action sequences or some kind of storyline involving radioactive spiders or strong men from space.

Aisholpan is a heroine — a real one — because she engages in hard work in order to accomplish her goals, typically without anything even remotely resembling a complaint. It’s that kind of can-do spirit that often robs the film of big drama, making her quest look a touch too easy, until of course she does something like retrieve her frozen-stiff laundry from a snowy stone wall or get perfect grades while far from home at boarding school or catch a nearly full-grown eaglet (a girl, too, of course) on her own after shimmying down a cliff to do, suddenly reminding her audience just how extraordinary she is. She’s smart and she’s strong, and that’s actually enough for her to overcome tremendous odds. We should be so lucky to have more films with such a message.

READ MORE: Sony Pictures Classics Picks Up Rousing Sundance Doc ‘The Eagle Huntress’

Bell backloads his film with the cinematic drama, including a long-teased eagle hunting festival whose existence and import are literally televised over the radio. It’s there that Aisholpan meets her foes, in the form of a laughing, leering crowd that only sees her as a “little girl,” hardly a competitor worth noticing. But Aisholpan, as is her wont, is noticed, and for all the right reasons. Later, Bell turns his eye — and cinematographer Simon Niblett’s camera, often bolstered by stunning drone-captured footage — on a harder challenge: Hunting in the wild. It’s there that Aisholpan’s mettle is really tested, and she and her flourishing eaglet take flight in ways that are emotionally and visually rewarding in equal measure.

A soaring, sweet documentary that welcomes its audience into an unexpected new arena, “The Eagle Huntress” offers up a movie-perfect story with a leading lady who has something to share with everyone. And its central message — that, in the words of the “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” theme song, females are strong as hell — is one that should be carried on wings around the world.

Grade: B+

“The Eagle Huntress” is in theaters on Wednesday, November 2.

 

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Comments

Adrienne Mayor

Aisholpan is truly brave and inspiring! but it is false to say she is the “very first eagle huntress” in her nomadic Kazakh culture. She follows other bold, determined girls and women who have trained eagles to hunt. She and her father are not “outliers” in her culture, as the film claims for the sake of western assumptions about steppe people and a contrived storyline with old men as naysayers. Most male elders in Aisholpan’s culture are happy to teach young women who are determined and strong enough to become eagle huntresses.

Training eagles to hunt has always been open to boys and girls alike: there are no social or religious bars to girls participating. It is wrong to cast Aisholpan’s culture as holding women back. One expects more from documentary film makers, especially when Aisholpan’s true story is so awesome without the cultural misrepresentations!

The evidence for women hunting with eagles on the steppes goes back 2,500 years, contrary to what the producers of The Eagle Huntress state. For photos of the historical and archaeological evidence for female Eagle Hunters in antiquity, along with photos and experiences of girls and women who are Eagle Huntresses today, see: https://web.stanford.edu/dept/HPS/EagleHuntress2016long.pdf

    Jo Smith

    Will people like you find a hobby besides finding the comment section of any article on the internet that has the word feminism and nitpicking with a motivated zeal and doesn’t really jibe with anything one reads if they spend a little time fact checking instead of sourcing yourself. Here’s some paragraphs on being female and marriage in Kazakh culture.
    Funny how it doesn’t sound anything like
    Kudu tusu, biz shanshar (Matchmaking)
    When a son is considered a grownup, his parents seek a bride for him. They choose a potential match for their daughter whose family is of the same financial position as theirs. Lets assume one family has a son and they have friends with an eligible daughter. They know each other very well, and until the end of their lives would like to stay friends. For that purpose they say “we’ll marry our children.” When matchmakers came to visit, they would also stay for the night. These matchmakers, typically old men” decided and then basically paid for a daughter,

    Torkindeu
    In the Kazakh tradition, Torkindeu was very important. With the exception of her brothers, no one else from the bride’s family was permitted to visit her during her year of “training.”
    “Saryn (auzhar) is a kind of farewell or parting. When the bride’s side gathered to say farewell to her, women stayed inside and men outside. The bride would weep, for it was of course difficult for her to leave her parents, brothers and sisters. The bride’s mother would tell how her daughter would be able to do all the housework and be able to handle a heavy and blackened cauldron. Zhigiti, whom she joked about before the marriage, would say she (the bride) was as small as a button, as thin as a needle and too young to marry. Farewell songs were also sung to the bride who was merely bought by a wealthy person and taken away. The sister-in law who was a friend, would advise her how to behave in a new place, and they would wish her health. If the bride was a beloved daughter, the father wouldn’t show his tears. He would ride away and weep somewhere else. The respected bride would be watched far into the distance, and the mother would weep long hours. She of course didn’t want to part with her daughter, but there was nothing to be done. Kazakhs believe that daughters were born for another family.”

    “Kyeli kyim
    According to ancient Kazakh tradition, the mother-in-law wouldn’t let her daughter-in law go home until a year had passed. During this period it was her duty to educate the new bride on her new duties. Surely this must have been a difficult period for the new bride. First, as mentioned earlier, she had to invent and use correctly new nicknames for her husbands parents. Second, she had a number of specific household duties to perform: to get up early, open the tundik, bring in the water, heat the yurt, prepare warm water for her father-in law to pour, and she was to close tundik late night. During the day she had to prepare the tea, process kumiss and cottage cheese, make kurt, wash the linen and the dishes, milk the cows and horses, gather “Kizyak” (processed dung used as fuel), and prepare lunch and dinner: in brief she had to do lots of work to do. She would not be able to go to bed until very late, and only after she had done all these chores. Should a guest come to visit at night, the young wife would also be expected to graciously entertain, leading to 17-18 hours of hard work during a typical day. Third, she had always to bow to her father-in law and mother-in law. Fourth, during the “testing” year, she mustn’t show any trace of ill temper. If she failed to get up early, i-t, was within the right of one of her brother’s-in law to beat her with a kuruk, a device designed for capturing unbroken horses. Should she be struck by her brother-in-law, she was not to become offended, but rather rise immediately and begin her tasks”

    Saryn (auzhar) is a kind of farewell or parting. When the bride’s side gathered to say farewell to her, women stayed inside and men outside. The bride would weep, for it was of course difficult for her to leave her parents, brothers and sisters. The bride’s mother would tell how her daughter would be able to do all the housework and be able to handle a heavy and blackened cauldron. Zhigiti, whom she joked about before the marriage, would say she (the bride) was as small as a button, as thin as a needle and too young to marry. Farewell songs were also sung to the bride who was merely bought by a wealthy person and taken away. The sister-in law who was a friend, would advise her how to behave in a new place, and they would wish her health. If the bride was a beloved daughter, the father wouldn’t show his tears. He would ride away and weep somewhere else. The respected bride would be watched far into the distance, and the mother would weep long hours. She of course didn’t want to part with her daughter, but there was nothing to be done. Kazakhs believe that daughters were born for another family.”
    Source
    http://www.kazakhstan.orexca.com/kazakhstan_culture2.shtml

Jo Smith

There’s no way no matter how many sources that paper stacked on the end you didn’t read some of the Kazakh family traditions listed above. You obviously aimed this at the film The Eagle Huntress and tried to craft a scholarly looking paper that is pretty clearly a personal anti-feminist propaganda piece.
To quote you “the film claims for the sake of western assumptions about steppe people and a contrived storyline with old men as naysayers. It is wrong to cast Aisholpan’s culture as holding women back. One expects more from documentary film makers, especially when Aisholpan’s true story is so awesome without the cultural misrepresentations!”
(western colonialism? check)
(appropriating the culture of POC? check)
Thats a big hunk of emotional blackmail your went for there.
If this was actually presented at a college I hope people check some sources on Kazakh traditions besides yours.

    Meghan Fitz-James

    Adrienne’s research is specific to the eagle hunting culture and female involvement in it and is a response to what she noticed in Sundance era media marketing also with respect to how the men of the culture were and are depicted. She is a Stanford University research scholar. She has sources in her research paper and she has done research to back everything she says about the naysayers and contrived storyline . So I think you missed the point of her words. And you should not speak of her and her work with such disdain. Tim Cope, a cultural envoy to tourism in Mongolia agrees with what Mayor and I have written. As does Women of Kazakhstan with regards the depiction of the men of the culture and the culture generally on the false premise of the film. I alao knkw this is confirmwd bubtwo very well informed loacals living in Ulgii. You need to do your homework. The quotes you grab are meant to do what? Show that the filmmaker should have left his description of the culture as one of “ingrained misogyny”? Try to keep your tone professional and do some fact checking. The film makers did none before launching his film at Sundance. Or do you agree that it is appropriate to refer to the men of the culture the way he and his team did. Otto Bell himself hired a publicist to correct the cultural misrepresentation. Look at pre August 4th interviews and writings and see how his messaging changed after that. You speak out of your hat and should really really do your homework before chastising a scholar whose research is ground breaking. See my opinion essay for information regarding this. Know what you are defending. If not for the work of Adrienne Mayor and myself this filmmaker would not have redoubled his efforts to change his tune. He knows of our work and is now ripping a page from it in his understanding. His ppl actually bullied for the censorship of my published opinion essay in Mongolia because he knows what I say challenges his work. My opinion essay was published on August 24 and censored October 24th because Mongolia News bowed to the pressure. Over 9000 Mongolians read my opinion op essay and the comments were all praise and it took 7 months of research and cites Mayor’s work. More will come out about the truth on this matter. I write in defense of Adrienne Mayor.

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