Deep in the wilds of Mongolia, nomads practice the art of eagle hunting. By tradition, it’s a man’s sport in this hierarchical society. So when a 13-year-old girl sets her sights on following in their footsteps, the grizzled men in her tight-knit community are surprised and even aghast by her ambition.
This is the theme of Otto Bell’s The Eagle Huntress, a soaring and uplifting documentary which opens in Canada on November 4.
The female in question, Aisholpan, was born in the barren and remote Altai mountains, the preserve of Mongolian Kazakhs like herself. She’s a straight-A student who aspires to be a doctor, but in the meantime, she’s preoccupied with becoming an eagle huntress.
Eagles, with a wing span of up to six feet, are valued for their ability to swoop down on foxes, which are prized for their furs. It takes talent, perseverance and courage to learn the arcane skills of an eagle hunter. In the opinion of her father, Aisholpan has what it takes. “You’re a natural,” he says some minutes into this absorbing one-and-a-half hour film.
Intelligent, brave and resourceful, she’s quite a gal. Aisholpan wants to be the first eagle huntress of her gender, and her supportive father is totally behind her. His fellow hunters have their qualms and doubts. Women should be at home doing household chores. Women lack the strength to capture and train eagles. This is what they think.
Aisholpan intends to prove them wrong.
Wrapped warmly in traditional Mongolian clothing, she and her father set out to catch a baby eagle in its nest. The eaglet, which is about three months old, must be caught before its mother returns.
Using ropes to lower Aisholpan down a rocky cliff, her father finally maneuvers his daughter to the desired position. In a few deft steps, she places the eaglet in a basket. It’s a great specimen that’s hers to train properly under her father’s supervision
The film reaches a climatic moment when Aisholpan takes part in the annual Golden Eagle Festival. No woman has ever competed in this championship for best eagle handler. She’s up against 69 competitors, all of whom are men, She’ll need whatever tricks of the trade she’s acquired to finish in the top three.
Aisholpan’s next test comes shortly afterwards, when she and her father go fox hunting on horseback on the steppes in the dead of winter, when the thermometer can plunge down to -40 centigrade. The newly-caught eaglet in hand, they search high and low for their elusive quarry amid an endless expanse of blinding snow and ice.
The cinematography is awe-inspiring, as is Aisholpan’s quest for mastery of this Mongolian tradition.