'The Eagle Huntress'
Here’s a story so ripe for the moment that it’s amazing it wasn’t scripted. Aisholpan Nurgaiv is a Kazakh teenager breaking a gender divide that has stretched on for generations to become the first female eagle hunter. Director Otto Bell found this story through photographs and was so moved by it that he flew across the world to capture her story in glorious high-def.
‘The Eagle Huntress’ is a beautiful documentary – inspiring, sweet and defined by gorgeous imagery. If the movie has any flaws, it’s almost too perfect and is perhaps stretched a little too far at feature length. Still, it’s a good time and shouldn’t be missed.
The documentary opens with Nurgaiv already committed to her eagle hunting passion. Her father has been in the game for years, the craft having been passed down in the family for generations. Her mother and friends are supportive, but it’s clear that it’s unique that she’d attempt to become an eagle hunter at such a young age, never mind that she’s a woman. She climbs along the side of a mountain to capture her own eagle and immediately seems preternaturally gifted at the craft. Almost as soon as she has her bird, she’s off to participate in a competition against elder eagle hunters who have been at it their whole lives.
Even though it covers quite a bit of ground, the film moves slowly. Director Bell takes his time, letting the story unfold naturally. He shoots ambitiously and uses multiple cameras to capture his larger-than-life reality. It looks beautiful. If anything, there are times that the story is almost too perfect and the images are filled with too much grandeur to believe. This extends to the competition itself, where Aisholpan doesn’t just battle against sexist opposition from the elders, but wins every challenge with record-breaking success. It’s incredible, and the girl couldn’t be more humble or worthy of the prize.
However, that’s not even the end of the story. From there, Aisholpan and her father must travel into the depths of the mountains to capture a fox with her eagle in order to become a fully recognized hunter. As you may have gathered, this is one of those stories where everything works out like a fairy tale (although some of the hunting scenes may be a bit harsh for animal lovers despite the film’s G-rating). Still, it’s here where Bell’s filmmaking grows even more ambitious, with drones and GoPro cameras used to extraordinary and immersive effect. The doc is defined by rousing emotions and imagery, and is immensely satisfying in those aims. Aisholpan herself is a sweet, strong and talented enough subject to be worth all the heightened emotions and imagery.
Unfortunately, even at just 87 minutes, the film can feel a little drawn out. There’s not quite enough content for a feature, which probably could have been condensed to about an hour for maximum emotional and cinematic impact. To extend the story, Bell lingers on landscape shots and also leans on voiceover to pad the running time and explain any subtext that might be missed. Daisy Ridley from ‘The Force Awakens’ provides the narration (and earns an Executive Producer credit for her troubles). Obviously, that draws some sweet and inspiring feminist hero connections between Aisholpan and Rey, which is nice, but Ridley reads her words like David Attenborough in a dryly educational tone.
That’s the biggest problem with ‘The Eagle Huntress’. While it has been shot for the big screen and is filled with the catharsis of a crowd-pleaser, it plays more like a standard TV documentary and never quite reaches the cinematic heights that it could. Still, this is hardly a bad film. In fact, it should find plenty of supportive audiences who don’t mind the limitations. It’s just a shame that ‘The Eagle Huntress’ is only a really strong doc as opposed to the truly great one it should have been.