Maria Flood finds an unlikely feminist icon in The Eagle Huntress, which screened at the Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival.
An instant feel-good classic, Otto Bell’s The Eagle Huntress tells the story of unlikely feminist icon, the 13-year-old Aisholpan, the first girl in her community to become an eagle hunter in the wildernesses of Mongolia. Aisholpan’s father, her greatest supporter, trains her for the upcoming eagle-hunter championships, in spite of the reservations of the more conservative members of the tribe. Aisholpan’s Dad wells up with pride as his daughter learns the intricacies of the craft: placing the hood over the fearsome beak, feeding the bird, and teaching the eagle to return to the glove. While her mother is also supportive of her daughter’s ambitions, saying ‘I want her to love her life’, it is the father-daughter relationship in the film that produces the most intense emotional impact.
One of the most touching aspects of the film is how Aisholpan brings together her traditionally masculine training as an eagle hunter with an easy femininity: she wears her hair in pigtails and adorns it with bows and flowers, and loves wearing nail varnish, even on the hunt — one contrasting image sees two bottles of pink and purple nail varnish sitting beside an almost-bare rabbit leg, with a strip of flesh and fur still clinging to the bone.
In the land of the ancient Emperor Genghis Khan, Aisholpan carries on a tradition of fortitude, skill, and prowess; it is hard not to be awed by her physical strength. The film is full of high drama, with one particularly memorable sequence showing Aisholpan scaling a sheer cliff face in order to capture her very own eaglet from its mother’s nest, as her father manoeuvres the ropes that steady her form to the top of the precipice. She travels a full day on horseback through wind and rain carrying the 15-pound eagle on her outstretched arm, a fantastic creature who, with wings out-stretched, is almost as big as the teenager herself. Another sequence shows her navigating the snowy wastes of the mountains, waist-deep in the drifts, pulling her very reluctant pony over a pass and still shouldering the giant bird.
The cinematography is quite literally breathtaking: made on the bleak but beautiful snow-filled slopes of Mongolia, the camera captures seemingly infinite horizons, with undulating layers of mountains and crisp bright blue skies. The film captures so much of what attracts art house movie-going audiences today: grounded in a local context, replete with traditional costumes, nomadic traditions and a rich history, this is also a universal story. A young girl, buoyed by a proud father and mother, who overcomes social and physical challenges to achieve her dreams — what’s not to love?