The documentary “The Eagle Huntress” hits all the right beats: inspiring, uplifting story; moral high ground; fascinating look at a little-known culture; and breathtaking nature photography.
The only problem — and it’s hardly a fatal one — is that everything seems so darn arranged. This isn’t slice of life, fly on a wall, just let the cameras roll stuff. This is obviously orchestrated — people come and go on cue, the emotional waves roll in at just the right pace. Documentaries do this all the time, of course; here the construction is just more visible.
Which works in direct contrast to the naturalistic look of the film, which takes place in remote Mongolia. Among the nomadic tribes there exists a tradition of men training eagles to hunt foxes during the winter. The birds are stolen from their nests before they’re able to fly; after seven years of service, they are let go (assumedly somewhat confused) back into the wild.
This tradition is reserved only for men. Until a 13-year-old girl named Aisholpan decides she wants to be the first eagle huntress. Her father, being an equal rights type, as well as a master eagle hunter, decides to teach her the tools of the trade. Most of the male eagle hunters, however, look at this as sacrilege.
First Aisholpan has to get an eagle, by climbing high up a mountain with her father and dropping down into the nest. Aisholpan is fearless, although the audience may be rattled. Then after training, she goes to compete at an eagle hunters festival. Finally, she must venture out into the snow and hunt her first fox. This does not bode well for the fox.
The film’s feminist message is hardly subtle, but it’s still effective. And the peak into the nomad lifestyle — where an eagle just sits on a perch in the living room — is fascinating. But it’s Aisholpan’s mix of steely resolve and sunshiny attitude that make the film. Those are things that can’t be orchestrated.
Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.
‘The Eagle Huntress’