There is an ancient tradition of falconry practiced by the people of Mongolia where burkitshi, or “eagle hunters,” train golden eagles to respond to their call and hunt hares and foxes in the frozen landscape. It’s a skill and ceremonial practice that’s learned from age 13 and has been largely the domain of men.
Enter Aisholpan, a 13-year-old nomadic Kazakh girl who wants to be an eagle hunter. Her father is one. Her grandfather was too. And it’s a family tradition that dates back 12 generations. It’s this shy, rosy cheeked and brave little girl whose story to become the first female eagle hunter in her family is lovingly told in the documentary “The Eagle Huntress,” which is sure to inspire and enchant generations of young children with its heartwarming story and stunning locations.
It’s fitting that the film is narrated (and executive produced) by Daisy Ridley, who shepherded the “Star Wars” universe into a more empowering space for women with her portrayal of the ambitious and self-sufficient Jedi-in-training Rey.
Director Otto Bell embeds the audience in Aisholpan’s world, which looks both modern and ancient at the same time. She lives with her parents and siblings in a spacious yurt. Her mother cooks and cleans and her father herds goats and cattle across the Mongolian Steppe. Aisholpan helps out with the chores at home and is a top student who hopes one day to become a doctor. But first, she wants to follow in her father’s footsteps and train eagles.
There is an obvious girl power message in the film that’s spelled out loud and clear by both the narration and the framing of Aisholpan’s accomplishments. Although her father and mother support her dreams, Bell makes sure to show a room of elder eagle hunters expressing doubts about a woman’s ability to perform the job because they lack the necessary bravery and are “too fragile.” They might as well be twirling their mustaches for how on the nose it all is.
In fact, there’s an overriding level of artifice to “The Eagle Huntress” that’s hard to shake. Bell opts for reality show techniques to up the drama throughout, like a cut of Aisholpan removing her hat at a competition to reveal she’s a girl juxtaposed with a shot of a man looking aghast while the music crescendos. Was he really looking at her? Was it an authentic moment? As it plays out, it certainly doesn’t feel real even if the spirit of truth is there. It’s something that’s unlikely to bother or even register with younger audiences and perhaps it’s even a necessary storytelling device. But it does break the spell of this otherwise enchanting and quite sincere film.
It’s hard not to get swept up in Aisholpan’s bravery and determination as she climbs down a rocky terrain to kidnap her very own eagle, or as she braces for impact when her eagle swoops down to land on her arm. The drone shots of the landscapes, too, are something to behold. It is indeed a rare and special story, and, as a film, it’s a wholesome lark that you’ll want to show your daughters and sons. Lindsey Bahr, AP Film Writer
“The Eagle Huntress,” a Sony Pictures Classic release, is rated G by the Motion Picture Association of America. Running time: 87 minutes.