THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE EAGLE HUNTRESS"
Aisholpan Nurgaiv is a 13-year-old Mongolian girl. In many ways, she is just like any other girl of her age. She enjoys hanging out with her friends, going to school, playing, and reading. If she views herself as a pioneer, she doesn't say so. Aisholpan most definitely is one, though. Otto Bell's captivating documentary The Eagle Huntress follows her as she trains to become an eagle hunter – a field dominated by males in her culture.
Narrated by Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), the movie's early scenes show Aisholpan being tutored by her father, who clearly respects her desire to take part in an activity generally off-limits to females. Under his guidance, she perilously climbs down a cliff face to a small ledge, where she tries to snatch a baby eagle from its nest, all while the mother swoops menacingly overhead. (It's a scene that rivals any action picture in its ability to generate tension.) The movie follows her as she practices training and calling the bird. Then comes the first big test: Aisholpan goes to compete in the annual Eagle Festival, where her male competitors clearly question her participation. The next test is even bigger. It entails going out into the snowy mountains and catching foxes for her family to eat during the brutal winter. The process can take weeks and requires extreme determination. Bell's cameras are there to capture all of it.
The Eagle Huntress provides a fascinating glimpse into another culture. Aisholpan and her family live in little huts during the summer, and houses (which our society would view as shacks) during the colder months. Hunting for food is a necessity, but also a time-honored cultural tradition. Seeing how these people live and witnessing some of the specifics of their eagle hunting proves to be quite interesting. One of the most insightful touches Bell brings to the film is a montage in which he interviews elder eagle hunters about Aisholpan competing in the games. They uniformly talk about how women are not cut out for this important cultural activity. The stunned looks on their faces when they hear how good the girl is are priceless, speaking volumes about the pointlessness of gender discrimination.
At its best, though, the documentary works because it has such a cheerful, engaging figure at its center. Aisholpan doesn't seem to have any strong overt desire to shatter glass ceilings. She's just a kid who cherishes eagles and is in awe of what eagle hunters do. It's that purity of motivation that allows her to succeed. Stripped of a mandated gender role, Aisholpan is free to simply focus on doing what she loves to the best of her ability. There's no exterior motivation. Passion is often the greatest predictor of success, a fact she heartily proves. Over the course of 87 minutes, you come to really care about this girl, not just for what she accomplishes, but for who she is.
At times, the filmmaking of The Eagle Huntress feels a little too much like an IMAX nature documentary, with its frequent long static shots and percussion-based musical score. This isn't a cutting-edge non-fiction film, by any means. Nonetheless, it's visually magnificent, capturing the majesty of the landscape. More importantly, it conveys the relationship between girl and bird, who find a crucial spiritual harmony together.
Even if she doesn't label herself as such, there's no denying that Aisholpan is a terrific inspiration and role model, for girls or boys. Or adults, for that matter. The Eagle Huntress is a joyous, entertaining reminder that when you do something out of pure passion, you can not only break down barriers, but also find great personal fulfillment.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Eagle Huntress is rated G. The running time is 1 hour and 27 minutes.
Buy a copy of my book, "Straight-Up Blatant: Musings From The Aisle Seat," on sale now at Lulu.com! Paperback and Kindle editions also available at Amazon.com!