The Eagle Huntress (Sony Pictures Classics, G)

This is a particularly good movie for young girls, as long as they’re not confirmed vegetarians.


Falconry is an old tradition in many countries, and in some parts of the world, including the Altai Mountains of Western Mongolia, hunting with birds of prey remains an important means of obtaining food. It’s also a cornerstone of cultural identity in that part of the world, and a practice that, historically, has been reserved for men. But change comes to even the most remote parts of the world, and the documentary The Eagle Huntress tells the story of a 13-year-old girl, Aisholpan Nurgaiv, who successfully challenges the disapproval of some village elders and becomes Mongolia’s first female eagle hunter.

Young Aisholpan is a charmer, her face full of purpose as she masters the skills of an eagle hunter (from capturing her bird as a chick to training it to follow her commands) under the watchful eye of her father. But she’s also a girl who likes to laugh and joke with her friends at school, where she lives in a dorm and attends classes wearing a black dress and white apron. Aisholpan wants to be a doctor, but first, she wants to become an eagle hunter, which makes her the embodiment of how the old and the new are blended in Mongolia. In fact, she lives at the school during the week, then goes home to a more traditional way of life on the weekends; in the summer, her family lives in a yurt, while in the winter they live, as her father says, in a regular (modern Western) house.

They key dramatic moment in the film is Aisholpan’s participation in an annual competition where she and her eagle will go up against about 70 men, all of whom are older than she is, and some of whom have been competing for years. After the competition, her final task is to master winter hunting, an endeavor that underlines just how tough an environment rural Mongolia can be.

The Eagle Huntress is a documentary in the style of Robert Flaherty, director of films like Nanook of the North (1922) and Man of Aran (1934). That is to say, it has the primary purpose of acquainting audience members with elements of an unfamiliar way of life, and to that end was shot on location, employing people from that area to demonstrate different aspects of their culture. However, Flaherty’s documentaries were actually scripted and employed individuals cast in roles they did not occupy in real life (for instance, the family group in Man of Aran were not, in fac,t members of one family).

I don’t know if any parts of The Eagle Huntress were scripted or staged, but some scenes certainly feel like they were; likewise, I have no way of knowing if some people appearing on screen were cast in roles that they did not occupy in life. It doesn’t really matter because the point of the film is to display aspects of traditional Mongolian culture in a way that will be effective on the big screen. There’s another key message in The Eagle Huntress, that of girl power, which is underlined by the use of Sia’s “Angel by the Wings” in the closing credits sequence. So this is a particularly good movie for young girls, as long as they’re not confirmed vegetarians—the closest thing to violence are some up-close scenes of animals being killed and eaten.

The strongest element of The Eagle Huntress, next to the on-camera presence of Aisholpan, is the stunning cinematography by Simon Niblett. He takes equal care in showing off the harsh splendor of the Mongolian landscape and the rich costumes tribal members wear on special occasions (at other times, they seem to make do with hooded sweatshirts and the like). The soundtrack by Jeff Peters and the Jingle Punks is Western and a bit overstated but effective enough particularly for younger viewers. The main false note in this film is the English-language narration by Daisy Ridley (who also serves as an executive producer), which sometimes states the obvious and frequently breaks the mood of an otherwise immersive documentary. | Sarah Boslaugh


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