Breaking traditional gender roles with 'The Eagle Huntress'

09 Dec 2016 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

9 mins
The Eagle Huntress
The Eagle Huntress

The Eagle Huntress is a documentary that tells the story of Aisholpan, a 13-year old Kazakh girl living in the remote Altai Mountains of Mongolia, who is determined to become an eagle hunter like her father - despite the fact that it's a tradition usually reserved for men. A spectacular, inspirational story, The Eagle Huntress opens up a culture known to very few of us and proves that with the right drive and determination, you can achieve anything.

Eagle hunting has been practiced by the Kazakh community for centuries, and Eagle Hunters (known as bürkitshi) mainly use their eagles to hunt small animals like rabbits, for food, and foxes, for their fur. Hunters also use them to take part in competitions and festivals. Eagle hunting usually takes place in the winter, when it is easier for the birds see the foxes that are their prey against the snow. Part of their culture, the Kazakh people are proud of their traditions. They are affectionate towards their birds, but unlike pets, it is rare that the eagles will be given names. Aisholpan initially trains with her father's eagle, but since every eagle can only have one master, she must eventually capture one of her own. The eagle will then live, train and hunt with her, until she releases it back into the wild some years later. 

Golden eagles are among the fastest moving animals on earth, capable of reaching speeds of up to 190mph! The name comes from the golden colour on their neck, but adults are actually deep brown and younger eagles are black with white feathers. They are also extremely heavy. Having the eagle (called a bürkit in Kazakh) sat on your arm -  as Aisholpan does routinely - is very difficult. And that's not to mention doing it while riding a horse at full gallop!

Most male Kazakhs make their living herding goats and cattle across the vast Mongolian landscape. Of the 100,000 Kazakhs remaining today, most are termed semi-nomadic because they move seasonally, up to four times each year. Aisholpan and her family move twice each year: during the spring and summer they live in their mountainside ger (nomadic dwelling), and move to a home constructed from wood, stone, and adobe (a type of clay) in autumn and winter.

Browsing the BBC website, first-time British director Otto Bell found images of Aisholpan taken by Israeli photographer Asher Svidensky. Captivated, he located Asher on Facebook to discuss making a film. However, the photographs were also attracting the interest of other filmmakers. Working quickly, Otto, Asher and cameraman Chris Raymond flew to Mongolia to find Aisholpan. It was a long journey to her remote home. After arriving in the capital, Ulaanbataar, the trio boarded a small plane and flew to Olgii, a small village in North West Mongolia. From there it was still a two-hour bus ride to Aisholpan's family ger on the mountainside. 

During this meeting, Aisholpan's father Nurgaiv (a master eagle hunter himself) announced that they were heading out to steal a balapan (young eagle) from its nest, and invited the crew along. Even though they had little camera equipment, and no sound man, this was too good an opportunity to miss. They made do with three cameras, including a tiny Go-Pro attached to Aisholpan's sweater to capture the moment from her point-of-view. The situation was dangerous, since it involved planting the cameraman on a precarious ledge next to where Aisholpan was attempting to snag the eagle. 

Having captured this remarkable footage, the filmmakers were keener than ever to proceed, even though they had no money. Otto was funding the film out of his own savings, but they were anxious to capture the vast cinematic landscapes of the Mongolian mountains and do Aisholpan's story justice. To help with this, Director of Photography Simon Niblett used a self-made drone and crane during filming. The crane was so compact it could be fitted into a snowboarders bag and taken on a plane, reaching more than 30ft high when unpacked. This crane was deployed for shots where harsh weather made it impossible for drones to fly. Another ingenious invention was an eagle cam, which was created from a dog harness to create actual birds-eye-view shots.

To help make the story relatable, Otto was also keen to capture everyday aspects of Aisholpan's life: going to school, eating a family meal, or ice-skating with friends. The film also contains interviews with elder Kazakh eagle hunters, who display patronising opinions about women being 'too fragile' to be Eagle Hunters.

Aisholpan was inspired to chase her dream after watching her father perform the practice when she was younger. Although she is not the first modern Kazakh huntress, she is the first to compete and win at the Golden Eagle Festival, ahead of 70 expert elder hunters. Her record-setting score provides a moment of triumph, but it still doeasn't convince the elders, who then say she has to successfully hunt a fox with her eagle to be considered a real huntress - an event Otto was desperate to film despite having totally run out of money.

Bell sent legendary documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock a ten-minute trailer of what he had produced so far. This footage so excited Spurlock that he agreed to produce the film, opening up access to more financing and equipment, and allowing Bell to return to Mongolia with a larger crew - including a soundman! The footage they captured of the hunt is astonishing, and although it appears to take place during one day, it was actually filmed in short bursts over 22 days; it was so cold that filming for long periods of time in -40 weather would have been impossible.

The final element came when Daisy Ridley - Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens - watched the film at the Sundance Festival, and came on board as an executive producer, narrating the finished theatrical version herself. Her narration serves as a guiding hand for younger audiences, helping to convey a culture that's very different to our own. The filmmakers noted the similarities between Aisholpan and Rey's stories: both are empowering examples of giving voice to young women in ways that has not happened before, a trend also apparent in films such as SonitaQueen of Katwe and He Named Me Malala

These are all portraits of remarkable young women from around the world, who must face up to extremely challenging situations, but who also boast inspiring attitudes and a belief that they can achieve anything. Aisholpan may practice an ancient discipline in a remote part of the world, but she is a modern, inspiring woman who knows that she can be as strong or brave as any man. Like Queen of Katwe's Phiona, Aisholpan plans to become a doctor after she has finished eagle hunting. After watching The Eagle Huntress, few would bet against her.

Explore the themes of The Eagle Huntress further with our Into Film Recommends podcast below, or log in to SoundCloud to download the podcast and listen on the go.

The Into Film Recommends Podcast Series is also available on iTunes.

Director Otto Bell discusses The Eagle Huntress

In the video below, The Eagle Huntress director Otto Bell talks about his new film with our young reporter Ceyda, revealing fascinating insights into the film's unconventional production process. Bell's film just goes to show that even ambitious filmmaking projects can be brought to life with enough drive and determination. 

If you're feeling inspired, be sure to get filmmaking and enter your documentary into the Into Film Awards.

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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