In the remote Mongolian steppe, one girl is dreaming of becoming an eagle huntress. Directed by Otto Bell, this documentary tells the story of 13-year-old Aisholpan, who wants to become the first female in twelve generations of her Kazakh family to become an eagle hunter. This century-old tradition has been passed down from father to son, but the idea of a young woman taking part is rejected by many of the Kazakh eagle hunters. Despite their criticism and resistance, Aisholpan’s father, Nurgaiv, agrees to train her.
The expansive shots of the Mongolian plains and mountainside are enough to make you enjoy this movie, let alone the story. After training with her father’s eagle, Aisholpan goes on to capture her own eagle by scaling a cliff and taking a fledgling eagle from its nest. She will raise, train and hunt with her eagle, then release it back into the wild after some years, to continue the cycle of life.
The film opens with another hunter releasing his eagle back into the wild, explaining that this ancient tradition is as much about the human-animal relationship as it is about respecting the cycle of life. The film then goes on to show Aisholpan training for the renowned Golden Eagle Festival, where she faces off against 70 of the greatest Kazakh eagle hunters in Mongolia. The training is difficult, but we never see the eagle huntress doubt herself for a minute. It’s clear that she believes her gender has nothing to do with her ability. Small snapshots of her life, such as when Aisholpan painting her and her sister’s fingernails outside their ger, or her daily life at school, illustrates how a young girl can believe in her abilities, be strong and be herself, all at the same time. She can teach her eagle how to hunt, while wearing flowers in her hair!
Throughout the interviews with older male eagle hunters, it’s clear that they have a certain idea of women, explaining that they can’t hunt because they are weak and will get cold. They believe this tradition should be learned only amongst men. The film’s website explains that “there is a long history of patriarchal ideas and customs among Kazakhs, many of which exist today in the average ger.” Scholar Dennis Keen explains, “Household labor is rigidly split between men and women. Men herd cattle, take care of finances, and have a greater luxury of recreation and hunting, women herd children, take care of guests, and when free, sew or shop. The left side of the ger is the domain of women; the right for men. It’s easy to see why the older eagle hunters would reflexively object to the idea of a girl hunting eagles, even though there is no set rule against it.” Even so, it’s refreshing to see that though Aisholpan’s family are traditional in their culture, they break with some of these practices. Both her parents fully support their daughter and her choices.
Even if you have never seen an eagle festival before, there’s a palpable excitement to the whole event. From watching Aisholpan perform in a timed contest in which she must call her eagle to her, or showing off its hunting ability, you’ll find yourself getting caught up and sitting closer to the edge of your seat.
No spoilers, but rest assured that Aisholpan wins hearts and prizes at the contest. It seems to surprise everyone – even her father who, at the end of the contest, is surprised by the results, so much so that one of the other contestants has to remind him, “Go hug your daughter!”
The narration by Star War’s Daisy Ridley and the fantastic soundtrack are just an added bonus. This is a movie, you need to see for yourself.
Aisholpan plans to become a doctor. Her father, Nurgaiv, a master eagle hunter, who has won the annual Eagle Festival himself twice, plans to teach the eagle hunting tradition to his daughter’s younger sister and brother.
This story is in many ways an ancient and modern one – ancient because it represents breaking down barriers of an old tradition, but modern because it shows young girls that if they are determined enough, they can fulfill their dreams.