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