Makpal Abdrazakova and her eagle, 2010, Kazakhstan
Director Otto Bell with Aisholpan
THE EAGLE HUNTRESS B
Great Britain USA Mongolia (87 mi) 2016 d: Otto Bell Official Website
If one purpose of a documentary film is to take viewers to a time and place that is completely foreign to them, then this film succeeds beyond belief, a film that takes us to the desolate landscape of the Mongolian mountains and plains through some treacherous wintry conditions, including limited sunlight, reduced to just two hours each day in the harshest conditions when temperatures reach 50 degrees below zero, with utterly spectacular aerial photography by Simon Niblett. Capturing the magnificent vantage point of eagles in flight, shooting from hundreds of yards away, the cameras capture the aerial sweep of the birds in flight, flying at speeds of 180 miles per hour, yet they remain in sharp focus throughout. In keeping with customs handed down by Kazakh families for centuries, the film’s storyline follows the exploits of Aisholpan Nurgaiv, a 13-year-old girl, as her father trains her to become the first woman in her family’s twelve generations of eagle hunters. When the Soviet Union ruled Kazakhstan, many families fled to Mongolia, where Bayan-Ölgii is the westernmost Mongolian province containing the country's only Muslim and Kazakh majority, with Kazakhs comprising 93% of the population, where many families continue to hunt with golden eagles, targeting foxes and hare in the cold winter months when they are more easily seen against the white snowy backdrop, where the eagle’s acute eyesight, sharp talons, predatory instincts, and ability to navigate vast distances make them ideal hunters. There are an estimated 250 eagle hunters in Western Mongolia. Every year in the first week in October, the Kazakhs hold the annual Golden Eagle Festival of Mongolia, where 70 eagle hunters vie for the top prize, mounted on groomed and decorated horses, wearing traditional Kazakh hunting attire, where prizes are awarded for speed, agility and accuracy, as well as for the best traditional Kazakh dress. In addition, there is a smaller festival held in the last week of September called the Altai Kazakh Eagle Festival with about forty eagle hunters participating. Although the Kazakh government has made efforts to lure the practitioners of these Kazakh traditions back to Kazakhstan, most Kazakhs have remained in Mongolia.
In 2013, Israeli photographer Asher Svidensky spent 40 days photographing Kazakh families in Mongolia, where he sought out a girl to round out his personal vision of “the future of eagle hunting.” With the help of his guide Dauit Daukysh Ryskhan, Svidensky discovered Aisholpan Nurgaiv, the 13-year-old daughter of the eagle hunter Agalai Nurgaiv, with the BBC publishing a photo-essay in 2014 that captured the attention of the filmmaker, who flew to Mongolia to secure the rights to Aisholpan’s story. As fate would have it, her father welcomed the idea, as we learn that Aisholpan’s older brother joined the army in 2011, so his daughter was next in line to pass down the ancient tradition, showing outward enthusiasm about the idea, inviting the film crew to accompany them that afternoon when he and his daughter were planning a trip to the Altai mountains to capture a young eaglet of her own to train. One of the extraordinary sequences of the film has Aisholpan being lowered by a rope from a steep rocky cliff in temperatures hovering around zero as she drops in on an eagle nest as she attempts to snare a female eaglet (larger, fiercer, and more powerful than males) that is continuously evading her grasp while the mother eagle circles overhead. There’s a short window to perform this nifty trick, as the idea is to arrive just a day or two before the young 3-month old eagle is ready to fly. It’s a heart-stopping sequence, similar to that filmed by Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson’s Icelandic film Heartstone (Hjartasteinn) (2016), where a young boy is lowered over a cliff edge to pick wild bird eggs from their nests. Interesting that the scene is associated with machismo and masculinity in the Icelandic film, while the dare-devil maneuver seems effortless by this brave young girl, capturing a healthy young eagle named Ak Kanat, “White Wings.” Eventually making seven trips to Mongolia, the filmmakers capture months of training where according to her father, Aisholpan displays a natural ease when handling the animal, weighing up to 12 pounds, where a baldak, or Y-shaped wooden rest, is attached to the saddle to carry the eagle on horseback, as the eagle learns to fly great distances from her father’s arm to her own, each wearing a heavy protective glove, coming when called, recognizing Aisholpan’s distinct voice, Clip: The Eagle Huntress (1:31). According to tradition, after seven years, the eagles are released back into the wild where they are free to mate and raise their young.
The film actually opens with a ceremonial release of a prized eagle, leaving it a newly slaughtered sheep initially to feed on, where the viewer is drawn into the customary tradition of eagle hunters in the region. Mostly handed down from father to son, this one offers a unique twist, becoming a father and daughter story that breaks with male tradition. Aisholpan spends the week attending school in town, living in a dormitory with her two siblings, where she is a straight-A student with aspirations to become a doctor, returning home on the weekends to train her animal. She has six weeks of training before the Golden Eagle Festival, where her father is one of the notorious figures and personalities associated with the festival, having already won twice, where he is one of the most respected elders. In his eyes, girls can do anything boys can do, as long as they remain determined, “There is no gender discrimination when it comes to hunting with eagles…Aisholpan is a very brave girl.” But other elderly eagle hunters are more doubtful, claiming “women are weaker and more fragile,” where they’ll get “too cold” on the hunt, or “she’ll have to get married soon anyway!” These chauvinistic scoffs only make Aisholpan more determined to prove herself at the festival, where she is not only the lone female among the 70 participants, but also the youngest entrant, with both her father and grandfather supporting her. Her mother laments the fact she doesn’t get to spend enough time with her daughter, but realizes the significance of her daughter’s ambitions and supports her whole-heartedly. Evaluated for their hunting attire and the quality of their horses, the eagles are timed for their speed in swooping down from mountain tops to their handlers calling out for them below with their arms upraised, or their ability to catch prey using a dead rabbit tied to a fast-moving rope. It’s an extraordinary event, where footage of the eagles in flight offer awe-inspiring cinematography, much of it filmed in slow motion, with Aisholpan having to prove herself in each competition, with grumbling male onlookers having to eat their words. Even as she surpasses all expectations, they still believe a true test of skill comes with the bone-chilling hunts of winter where the girl has yet to prove herself by catching a fox. The final trek into the snowy mountains in the 50-degree below zero winter chill is a brutal test, not just for Aisholpan but for her eagle, who has never killed a live animal before, especially one that fights back with deadly force. In a 20-day hunt, with only two-hours of sunlight every day, where at times the snow is too deep for the horses, it’s an astonishing feat, where the eagle fails in its first attempts, outfoxed by a fox, but they persevere until they are eventually successful, where the degree of difficulty is truly the ultimate test of stamina and skill.
So there are two diametrically opposing forces at work here, a revelation about a unique Mongolian tradition that is cinematically spectacular, and a willfully exploitive depiction of a young girl from the outer edges of the world whose ambitions are blatantly manipulated to serve the director’s single-minded purpose, becoming a manifesto on girlpower, where the filmmakers resort to a bit of contrived overkill in the trite narration and commercial musical refrain “You can do anything” from Sia’s “Angel by the Wings” that plays over the closing credits. While Aisholpan’s infectious smile and fearless approach make her an ideal subject, she is not, as the film erroneously suggests, the first female eagle huntress, and to suggest so is to express a knowingly inaccurate narrative. According to Adrienne Mayor’s extensive historical overview, May 1, 2016 (pdf format), The Eagle Huntress Ancient Traditions and New Generations, “eagle huntresses were probably more common in ancient times…Archaeological discoveries of graves (ca 700 BC to AD 300) across ancient Scythia, from Ukraine to China, reveals that steppe nomad females engaged in the same riding and hunting activities as the men, and about one third of the women were active warriors in battle.” Unfortunately, the director is well aware of previous female eagle hunters, but intentionally left them out of the narrative and instead created a feel-good story of a young girl breaking the mold and overcoming all odds, becoming a heartwarming tale that is primarily suited to appeal to Western audiences, but is blatantly untrue. Consider this article written by Shamil Zhumatov from March 6, 2012, Kazakhstan's lone female eagle hunter - Reuters, profiling another eagle huntress, Makpal Abdrazakova, who was first seen competing in 2009 and is now a lawyer and continues to enter eagle contests, encouraging other young women, while her father, Murat Abdrazakov, also continues to train new young girls. According to Mayor, the director refused to meet Makpal when making his film, and when asked why he indicated “it is not his responsibility to tell an ethnologically comprehensive story,” while co-producer Asher Svidensky informed her in early 2016, “Entertainment isn’t anthropology.” Instead the filmmakers intentionally misrepresent Kazakh and Mongolian culture, showcasing well-decked out elders in animal furs from the Kazakh community who refuse to acknowledge a woman’s place in their hunting customs and traditions, claiming women belong in the kitchen (male views like this exist in every society), all belittling and undermining Aisholpan’s accomplishments, yet Mongolia is far from the backwards or misogynistic culture presented, as women have voted and held office since 1924, more than 80 percent of women have secondary education, and 70 percent of college students are women, where the historical independence of women since ancient times is worthy of note. Strong women have always been part of the nomad heritage and girls have never been forbidden to train eagles. Girls and boys start riding horses at age five and help with herds, as the challenging conditions of the brutally harsh landscape has always meant that men and women engage in strenuous riding activities together. From the days of Robert Flaherty to Werner Herzog, documentary films are expected to be culturally honest and historically factual, even if some obvious staging exists in the film. Unfortunately, this film skews the facts to create an overly determined film, whose goal is known before the film even starts, becoming one of those films that makes the subject matter fit the theme, regardless of contradictory evidence, only including what meets the predetermined criteria and leaving out the rest.
Home Nena Atkinson from Women of Mongolia, New Media Research Exhibition, Summer 2015