By John Liu
Northwest Asian Weekly
When I first heard the movie Eagle Huntress, I envisioned a fierce female warrior hunting eagles, which would probably not make for a very compelling movie. This must be about someone who actually uses eagles to hunt. The latter was correct, but I did not expect that huntress to be only 13 years old.
Meet Aisholpan Nurgaiv. She generally has the same interests as other 13-year-old girls. She attends boarding school with her two siblings five days a week. On the outside, she seems like an ordinary girl who likes ice skating, playing with her friends, and painting her nails. However, there’s one big difference. She is dedicated to becoming the first female eagle hunter in 12 generations of her Kazakh family. There have been female eagle hunters before Aisholpan, but her dream is to be the first to compete in the Golden Eagle Festival and complete all other official trials to achieve Eagle Hunter status. This British-Mongolian-American documentary, directed by Otto Bell, gives us an inside look at the incredible journey Aisholpan undertakes to reach her goal. Daisy Ridley, Rey of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” is a co-executive producer and narrates certain segments of the film.
In the opening scene, we quickly get a demonstration of Aisholpan’s strength and endurance. New eagle hunters must painstakingly capture an eaglet off the cliffs of the Altai Mountains to train. These eagles are at the perfect age only a few days a year, when it doesn’t have the skill to fly away, but old enough to survive without its mother. The audience gets to see Aisholpan dangling halfway up the mountainside, while her father tries to hold a rope steady from above. Aisholpan delicately captures an eaglet, while the mother eagle is hovering just above. That’s just one of the heart stopping moments in the movie.
The cinematography was just gorgeous, as we see sweeping views of Mongolia’s snow-covered lakes and mountains. Some of the filming was done by drones and attaching GoPros to eagles. Due to sub-freezing temperatures, filming was sometimes delayed. It’s hard to complain about the local weather when the people there survive in -40°F. Just writing that is enough to send a shiver down my spine.
The film wastes no time letting the audience know what some of the other senior, male eagle hunters think of Aisholpan’s goal to become the first eagle huntress. We get to sit through quotes like “Females can’t get the respect from eagles,” and “Their place is cooking food for their families.” Many generations of sexist views make you wonder if their attitudes will change even if Aisholpan wins.
Fortunately, Aishopan has her family’s full support. Her grandfather gave his blessing for her journey, and her father, Agalai, trained Aisholpan — teaching her all the skills needed to win. This included giving commands for her eagle to land on her outstretched arm and to catch a rabbit carcass tolled by a horse she is riding. We get to witness a direct exchange as Aisholpan and her dad are having lunch with the other male eagle hunters, who were interviewed earlier. Aisholpan just smiles quietly. Even if Aisholpan fails, she has already proved to be an excellent role model to every girl who has heard her magnificent story.
At the 2014 Golden Eagle Festival, Aishopan is nervously waiting her turn to compete. You immediately notice all the judges are male. In the first round of the competition, participants are judged on their appearance. Previous riders have gotten scores of 8-10, with 10 being the highest.
Would the male judges be fair or do they have century-old biases that women don’t belong there?
Everyone in the theater held their breath…
Eagle Huntress is now playing at the Landmark Seven Gables Theatre, located at 911 NE 50th St in Seattle, through Dec. 15.
John can be reached at email@example.com.