The Middleburg Film Festival has grown in depth and popularity since its inception in 2013. Boasting a terrific roster of films for 2016, the winner of the Audience Award for Best Documentary also claimed many hearts. The Eagle Huntress is the true story of Aisholpan Nurgaiv.
Fascinated from early childhood by the golden eagles that are part of her family’s nomadic existence, Aisholpan helps her father, Agalai, with his eagle. When the oldest son gets drafted into the army and qualifies to train as an officer, she takes on most of his chores. She also accompanies her father into the mountains, because hunting an eagle requires two people on horseback.
Her heart’s desire is obvious — to her mother Alma, and especially to her father and his father. They have witnessed how she does everything accurately and well, that she is totally fearless. With the blessing and support of her father and grandfather, Aisholpan, 13, becomes her father’s apprentice in this ancient practice that helps to ensure the Kazakh nomads’ survival during 40-below zero winters typical of the Altai Mountains in western Mongolia. Hunting with eagles only in winter provides the nomads with small mammals for food and clothing.
Aisholpan becomes the first female to hunt a golden eagle in 12 generations of her family. She’s also the first female to compete in the annual Golden Eagle Festival (founded in 1999) in the Bayan-Ulgii Province of Mongolia. Grumpy skeptics express their opinions rather humorously in several scenes even though Aisholpan, who holds her own against 70 veteran Kazakh eagle hunters, scores brilliantly with Akkatnat (White Wings), the eagle she captured and trained under the tutelage of her father, himself a champion eagle hunter.
These are wild raptors, “borrowed” by the nomads while still fledglings and usually females because they grow bigger (7- to 8-foot wing spans) and tend to be more loyal than their male counterparts. Their progressive training begins by learning to be hand-fed, which initiates bonding to their human. The golden eagles and nomads hunt only in the winter for small mammals — fox, rabbit and hare — which provide food and clothing when their fur is at its thickest.
Otto Bell makes a brilliant debut as director of his first feature film. It begins with a friend of the Nurgaiv family, following tradition by releasing back into the wild world his “borrowed” golden eagle whose life expectancy is about 30 years. It’s emotional with a ceremonial solemnity, because of the bond that grows between eagle and human. So far in his lifetime, Aisholpan’s father has released three golden eagles. The nomads are very respectful of their eagles and treat them as if they’re family, keeping them no longer than 8 to 10 years before returning them to the wild.
Hunting with golden eagles has been primarily a male tradition passed from father to son for about 2,000 years, but there have been other eagle huntresses throughout history. More recently, another three girls competed in the Eagle Festival. However, no one went viral quite the way Aisholpan did in 2014, thanks to photographs by Asher Svidensky.
“I saw a photo on BBC of Aisholpan – she was training her father’s eagle at the time, and I thought there had to be a film in that photo,” said Bell. “I found Asher through Facebook and very quickly we agreed to get on a plane and go out to meet the family.”
It was kismet that Bell would make this film and, in fact, it began the very first day he met with Aisholpan’s family, nomadic herders of cattle and goats.
“I was sitting in their ger [tent], having tea with them. They were very welcoming, part of the nomadic code,” recalled Bell. “It’s one of the most remote parts of the least populated country, so when they have guests, they welcome people and they’re great hosts. I was floating the idea of maybe making a film when Agalai, the father, stood up and said, “Well, we’re going to go steal an eagle from the mountainside this afternoon. Is that the sort of thing you’d like to film?’ That was our first day — what would be the first act of the film. We filmed from three different angles and we did it in one take.”
Bell’s film crew was small. His cameraman, Chris Raymond, who stayed on the ground, because of an aversion to heights (wait until you see the views!), took the wide shots. Asher had only done still photos, but Bell asked if he could keep his D-SLR camera steady while on video mode. They climbed, then scrambled down the mountainside to a ledge next to the golden eagle’s nest. Bell pulled the Go Pro from the bottom of his rucksack and filmed while Aisholpan “played” with the eagle she would name White Wings. It looks as if she’s hypnotizing the bird.
The magnificent and vast landscape, plus the appeal of the story itself, resulted in Bell investing his life savings and borrowing more to make this riveting documentary. Narrated by executive producer Daisy Ridley, with subtitles, and breathtaking cinematography, this film takes you to dizzying heights in the Mongolian mountains to experience the inspiring story of a young girl’s passion that’s nurtured by an understanding father. When asked, Agalai didn’t really see himself as a role model for fathers around the world; he was just doing what he needed to do for his daughter.
“I don’t think that making this film will ever leave me,” said Bell.
His sentiment describes the reaction of many people who have seen this film.
As for the future of The Eagle Huntress herself: Aisholpan has two more years of study to prepare for medical school (she plans to return home as a doctor). Her favorite experiences visiting the U.S. twice so far include seeing the ocean for the first time and the Statue of Liberty. Asked for her advice to other young girls whose dreams don’t fit into their families’ expectations or their cultures, Aisholpan replied: “Keep trying. Follow your dreams.”
The Eagle Huntress is moving, inspirational, educational and entertaining. It sends out a great message about not giving up. My only criticism of this film is that it ended. It belongs on everyone’s “must see” list.