The Eagle Huntress Directed by Otto Bell. Rated G. Opens Friday at Century Suncoast.
Director Otto Bell found such a perfect subject for his documentary The Eagle Huntress that it’s hard not to wonder how much of the story presented in the movie is manufactured, or at least very carefully manipulated. That’s not to say that 13-year-old Mongolian girl Aisholpan Nurgaiv isn’t a real person, or that her desire to follow in the footsteps of her male ancestors (including her father and grandfather) in training an eagle as a hunting companion isn’t genuine. But the movie follows such an audience-friendly, cliché-filled narrative, and is delivered with such slick visuals, that it more resembles an empowering advertisement than a document of real life.
Not that it doesn’t succeed as a movie, though, thanks to the charisma of its subject and the inherent drama of her efforts to capture and train a young eagle on the frozen steppes of Mongolia, where she lives with her family as part of a nomadic tribe (but also attends a more modern school and lives in a dorm during the week). The quietly determined Aisholpan infiltrates a previously male-dominated world with confidence, thanks to support from her family, especially her father, who guides her in her training. Bell cuts away to interviews with older men denouncing the participation of a girl in the ancient tradition of eagle-hunting, but it’s never indicated whether these men are part of Aisholpan’s tribe, or in any positions of authority. Their interviews are isolated, and they never interact with each other or anyone else in the movie.
Instead, Aisholpan seems to almost breeze into the competition at the annual eagle-hunting festival, and her success seems a little too easy and positive for a movie that is ostensibly about all of the obstacles in front of her. Bell uses lots of drone footage to depict the forbidding landscape that Aisholpan calls home, and he gets an intimate look at Aisholpan’s family life, but the storytelling remains mostly superficial, and some of the shots are so carefully crafted that it’s hard to imagine they captured spontaneous moments. Still, when Aisholpan stands on a ledge and uses a wild call to get her massive, dangerous bird to land calmly on her arm, it’s hard not to smile and root for her. The movie has made it impossible to do otherwise.