Raptor Rapture: Otto Bell’s ‘The Eagle Huntress’ focuses on a pioneering young girl in Mongolia

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Otto Bell’s debut documentary, The Eagle Huntress (opening on Oct. 28 from Sony Pictures Classics), is about a girl and her eagle. It is also the story of that rare bond between human beings and wild creatures.

Bell’s subject is 13-year-old Aisholpan Nurgaiv, the daughter and granddaughter of master eagle hunters. Like falconers who hunt with small birds of prey, eagle hunters partner with golden eagles in the pursuit of small game. At the beginning of the documentary, Aisholpan (“morning star”) is an aspiring eagle hunter, mentored by her father Agalai. They are Kazakhs, members of Mongolia’s largest ethnic minority, most of whom live in the Altai Mountains and speak a language of Turkic origin.

“Aisholpan is incredible,” Bell says, in an interview this past summer at his Fifth Avenue office. “Even filming at 40 below, 5,000 feet above sea level, she never complained.” The sequence he refers to is the girl’s final test of mastery, the winter hunt with White Wings, her golden eagle. On that shoot, the British filmmaker and his two-man crew also braved frigid temperatures, deep snow and unpredictable animals, including Mongolia’s notoriously irascible takhi, small horses used for transportation and as pack animals. “We set aside five days to film that sequence,” Bell says, smiling, “and it ended up taking us 22 days.”

The filmmaker credits the “inventive genius” of his director of photography, Simon Niblett, for getting them through that on-location shoot, but also Aisholpan’s father. “Agalai was my location manager for the winter scenes,” Bell says. “Without his experience and his ability to read the landscape and understand the environment, and the variables of how wildlife in that environment are going to behave, I think we’d still be there!” Other challenges were that at such boreal temperatures, battery power quickly plummets, and metal tripods become frost-burn hazards. Production was limited to a few hours each day.

Bell discovered Aisholpan through Israeli photographer Asher Svidensky; his photo essays of Kazakh eagle hunters have been widely published over the last three years. “I started looking at different elements of Asher’s pictures, at the mountains in the background and at this beautiful light,” he says, “and Aisholpan casting her amazing bird into the air, the largest of the golden eagles. I thought: This girl is walking around in the world, laughing and talking, and I wanted to film that.”

Bell quickly establishes the remarkable ease with which Aisholpan handles her golden eagle. A rare eagle huntress, she never flinches as the 15-pound bird dives toward her at 100 miles an hour in order to perch on her arm. “Aisholpan’s mum, Almagul, showed me pictures of her daughter as a baby, fearlessly crawling over to her dad’s eagles,” Bell recalls. The Kasakhs prefer female birds because they are good hunters, and are larger, with a wingspan that can exceed seven feet.

“I knew straightaway that I wanted to get the eagle’s POV,” Bell says. The Oxford University graduate fashioned an “eagle cam” from a dog’s harness, and strapped it on White Wings. Niblett arrived with a drone he built to accommodate his camera, and a crane of his own invention that folded into a small bag.

The Eagle Huntress begins with a drone shot across the rocky terrain of the Altai Mountains. Voiceover narration by Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) explains the location, and then an older man’s sacrifice of a goat for the ritual release of his golden eagle. The birds are never really tamed, and after seven years Kazakh eagle hunters return them to the wild. The sacrifice in the film honors the golden eagle’s service to the man whose name is Dalaikhan. He is a master eagle hunter and Agalai’s friend. “Starting the film with the sacrifice was the only beginning I had in mind,” Bell explains, “because I like that it challenges the audience early on to realize that this is a tough world and one steeped in tradition.”

Bell observes that he is not blind to the effect of that sequence on younger audiences. “I thought there was an elegance in showing an older man returning his eagle to nature,” he says, “and then cutting to a young girl who is about to find her own eagle from nature.” Early in the documentary, Aisholpan chooses her eaglet and, as tradition demands, snatches it from the nest, which is on a high, sheer cliff. The scene was shot with very little preparation on Bell’s first visit to Mongolia with Svidensky. “Asher introduced me to Agalai,” Bell says, “and we were discussing the possibility of making the documentary.” Agalai told Bell that it was time for Aisholpan to capture the three-month-old eaglets.

“It was an incredible opportunity,” Bell explains, “and I couldn’t pass it up.” Svidensky was pressed into service, shooting his first-ever video footage from a ledge parallel to the nest, with Bell beside him. Cameraman Christopher Raymond, who receives additional photography credit on the documentary, filmed from below. “I then strapped a Go-Pro camera onto Aisholpan, who had to scale the cliff from above,” Bell says. “Honestly, I thought it would be unusable because her cardigan or her pigtails would get in the way, but we got that circling motion she does with her hands, when the eaglet becomes what I call hypnotized.” Audiences should not feel sad at the snatching of an eaglet; the first-born often pecks its siblings to death.

When Agalai is satisfied that Aisholpan has mastered the skills of an eagle hunter, he seeks his father’s blessing for her to compete in Mongolia’s Golden Eagle Festival. She receives it, along with the encouragement of her family and friends, but she is ostracized by the old guard of male eagle hunters. Although Bell uses them as a comic foils, Aisholpan is not impervious to their criticism, or to the fact that she is a girl in a man’s world; during the shoot, she was surrounded by men in front of and behind the camera. “Me and my crew, three sweaty, British blokes in fleeces and waterproofs, were standing around this amazing girl, asking questions and following her and her father about,” Bell recalls.

The filmmaker often looked on as Aisholpan cut pictures out of fashion magazines and painted her nails. “I was always very conscious that I was a man trying to tell a story about a 13-year-old girl,” he confides. “I also knew that I needed that juxtaposition of girl and eagle hunter on film.” Bell hired Martina Radwan. “She is an excellent vérité cinematographer,” he says, “and someone who knows Mongolia very well.” Radwan lived with the family for a few weeks, and shot several intimate sequences, including one of Aisholpan at school with her girlfriends. “I could not have gotten that,” Bell admits. “No group of girls is going to giggle and open up that way in front of a three-man crew.”

Watching The Eagle Huntress, one is aware of the role of pride in Kazakh life and in the Nurgaiv family. Agalai is proud of his daughter; her skill honors the family tradition. He gently instructs Aisholpan in the use of eagle hunter accouterments, and Almagul speaks to her about the choice of fabric for her Eagle Festival costume. Almagul’s home is orderly and clean, and her children well cared for. Other instances of pride are on display at the Golden Eagle Festival.

The event begins with a parade of eagle hunters on horseback. “You are literally judged in this event on how fine your outfit is, and there is a certain peacocking in it for the men,” Bell explains. “With Aisholpan, it’s just about being young and being a girl.” Bell, who is very young himself, and was producing commercial shorts before directing The Eagle Huntress, made a documentary that looks like a Hollywood movie. He admits to retakes, and to “leaving out the gore” in the hunt scenes, yet the genuine awe with which he approaches Aisholpan and her world is as refreshing as his apple-cheeked heroine.