Film Review: The Eagle Huntress

An inspiring look at a brave young girl taking on her tribe’s male-dominated eagle-hunting traditions.
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One of the many joys of the best cinema is its ability to transport us to places we may never have gone and meet people we would never have even known about, and that’s certainly the case with Otto Bell’s documentary The Eagle Huntress.

Opening with sweeping shots of the snow-covered Mongolian steppe, Bell’s strong directorial debut follows the journey of 13-year old Aisholpan, a girl from a nomadic Kazakh tribe where eagle hunting has been passed down from one generation of males to the next.

Eagles are used by the men of the tribe to hunt for food and fur used for clothing, something so steeped in tradition it has reached an almost spiritual level. Sexism is inherent in this culture where women are thought of as being too weak to do more than the cooking, but Aisholpan’s father Agalai, who has won many medals in competition with his eagles, supports his daughter’s interest in training hunting eagles along with him.

At one point, we see this brave young girl climbing down a mountain face to capture her own eaglet to train, and after what seems like minimal training, Aisholpan and her father travel to a competition at the annual eagle festival. The next half-hour shows Aisholpan competing, not only as the first woman to ever take part in this contest but also as its youngest competitor.

Much of this early part of the film is intercut with Aisholpan’s mother Almagul back home cooking and cleaning to show the clear delineation between gender roles within the tribe.

The last section of the film follows Aisholpan’s father taking her to the ice- and snow-covered Altai Mountains in order for her eaglet to earn her wings by hunting small animals in this particularly treacherous area of the steppe. Any sense of peril that comes along with eagle hunting is made far more apparent, but as is her nature, Aisholpan shows little to no fear or trepidation of tackling the inherent dangers.  

For his very first film, Bell doesn’t cut corners in tackling what must have been a difficult subject due to the terrain and remote locale, but he seemingly has his cameras everywhere they’re needed while covering the more active portions of the competition and Aisholpan’s first hunting expedition. There are times during the quieter cinéma-verité sections showing the family’s everyday life where some of the interactions seem staged, but when Aisholpan is talking to other girls her age or younger, you can see the absolute awe in their eyes. She is clearly inspiring them with her own achievements to buck against their ingrained tribal traditions.

Sparsely narrated by Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens)—who is also one of the film’s executive producers—the film’s lush cinematography is enhanced by a gorgeous score that brings so much to the sense of adventure that permeates the entire film.

In this age when women are still struggling to be treated as equals to men, Otto Bell’s marvelous film should be inspirational to younger girls by showing them how they can do and be anything they want in life.

Click here for cast and crew information.