Documentaries are all about narrative framing: making the facts tell a story. The Eagle Huntress, narrated by Daisy Ridley (Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens), is a movie that has a clear arc, but there’s an underlying message that’s not exactly borne out by the events that play out on screen. The 87-minute documentary is worthy, but there’s a battle not very deep beneath its surface.
13 year old Aisholpan Nurgaiv wants to become an eagle huntress, the first in her family’s history. With the assistance of her father, Rys, she catches an eagle, trains it, and stands against an establishment which disapproves of her actions but is powerless to stop them.
Aisholpan and the steppes upon which she lives are inherently cinematic; she has an open face and lives on an open plain. Director Otto Bell found her early enough in the process that he was able to film her locating and capturing her eagle; rather than starting in media res, The Eagle Huntress has clear start and end points. Aisholpan’s appeal is that she’s a young teenage girl rather like any other, just one with a niche interest.
Bell walks us through every aspect of Aisholpan’s life: her boarding school education with her younger siblings, her summer and winter homesteads and, of course, the training of her freshly captured eagle for the all-important annual eagle hunting competition.
Bell has an eye for talent, interviewing the town fathers of the eagle hunting establishment, who are quite used to handling media. Their earnest beliefs in the inability and unsuitability of women for the way of life are repeatedly undermined by direct footage of Aisholpan more than competently handling her eagle.
It is important that The Eagle Huntress establishes that opinion is stacked against Aisholpan. Discrimination exists on a societal level, but never on an legislative level; Aisholpan can do what she likes because there’s no rule against it. It’s a triumph for its own sake, a showing up of patriarchal finger wagging. It’s a simple matter of something not having been done, not one of it not having been allowed.
Bell, using Ridley’s narration sparingly, only has to turn Simon Niblett’s (Adventures of the Penguin King) camera on his subject to tell his story. Very little of The Eagle Huntress feels staged, allowing for a naturally told and intriguingly shot documentary to emerge over its 87 minutes.
The Eagle Huntress is an organic documentary made by a director who has an affinity for the serendipitous and an eye for on screen talent and scenery. While it may be conventional, The Eagle Huntress is never dull, except for its statutory Sia end-credits song.
The Eagle Huntress opened in Australian cinemas on March 16, 2017.
Directed by: Otto Bell.
Starring: Aisholpan Nurgaiv and Daisy Ridley.