The Eagle Huntress

Film Review by Justin Eagle Gauthier Eagle Huntress

In April 2014, director Otto Bell discovered a series of pictures from Israeli photographer Asher Svidensky showcasing 13-year-old Aisholpan Nurgaiv atop a mountain, a mature golden eagle perched on her arm. In the pictures, the young Kazakh girl wears a look of pure joy and determination. This same infectious personality is on full display in Bell’s 2016 documentary, The Eagle Huntress.

We follow Aisholpan from her boarding school, where during the week she acts as a surrogate parent for her younger siblings, to her home where she prefers to assist her father in tasks more traditionally performed by boys. The young lady surprises us with her resiliency, bravery, and strength. In her pursuit to become the first eagle huntress, Aisholpan strives to surpass a thousand-year gender barrier. It’s our good fortune to be able to witness her attempt to master the skill that’s typically passed down from father to son within the indigenous communities of Mongolia for a thousand years.

Three short months after seeing the photographs, Otto Bell was compelled to travel to Mongolia to the remotest part of the least populated part of the world. During that first trek to the steppes, Bell and his three-man team captured some of the most compelling and culturally significant documentary footage of the first decade in the twenty-first century. Guided by her father, Rys Nurgaiv, Aisholpan scales down the side of a mountain to capture an eaglet from a nest. During this harrowing descent, the viewer sees three separate camera views, one of which is a Go-Pro strapped to Aisholpan. In the footage, we see chipped purple nail polish on the fingernails of a young girl gripping a safety rope for dear life. We witness Aisholpan hypnotize the eaglet and form an initial bond unlike any before captured on film.

Filmed in and around the Altai Mountains of Mongolia, the cinematography of The Eagle Huntress is absolutely stunning. Cinematographer Simon Niblett manages to capture a spectrum of natural colors that imbues his work with a liveliness that beams from the screen. The beauty of the land is conveyed via amazing drone footage and it seems fitting that a documentary about eagles would feature some of the most incredible aerial footage ever captured for a documentary feature.

Still, the heart of this film is the relationship between Aisholpan and her father. Rys mentors, encourages, and shields his daughter throughout her training to become an eagle huntress. The male elders of the area are entrenched and cannot see their way to accepting Aisholpan as a true hunter. Rys’ belief and unwavering love for Aisholpan provide her a stable perch to soar from.

Seek this movie out and you’ll join the growing community awed by the Mongolian eagle huntress.

Menominee Tribal member Justin Eagle Gauthier has been featured in several literary journals. He is currently enrolled in the LoRez MFA program in creative writing studying screenwriting at the Institute of American Indian Arts.