Like most 13-year-old girls, Aisholpan likes to paint her nails and hang out with friends. Though she enjoys school and wants to be one of the best students, like a typical teenager she also has a dream that’s more far-reaching.
But Aisholpan Nurgaiv is far from typical. She was born into a family of Kazakh nomads, who break down their tents and relocate based on the time of year, as 30 percent of the population does. She and her family live in the most isolated part of one of the most remote countries in the world—Mongolia—where the terrain is rugged and school is so far away that the children must stay in dormitories during the week, only returning home on the weekends. That leaves plenty of time for hanging out with friends . . . and dreaming.
If your children aren’t averse to watching documentaries with subtitles, I can’t think of a better one for family movie night than The Eagle Huntress, a G-rated inspirational film that has a lot going for it: exotic setting, gorgeous cinematography, a likable teenage protagonist, a special father-daughter bond, and a natural dramatic arc that’s the result of Aisholpan’s very specific dream. She wants to become a golden eagle hunter like her father and grandfather, and his father and grandfather, and their fathers and grandfathers. It’s an all-male party she’s trying to crash, but what makes this film heartwarming is that she has the support and encouragement of her family. Elders in the golden eagle hunting community appear on camera to express their displeasure, but that’s not enough to stop Aisholpan or her father, Rys, who takes pride in training her, or her grandfather, who gives her a blessing.
So what is an eagle hunter? There’s both a practical and a traditional/ceremonial side to it. Eagle hunters train a 15-pound golden eagle to hunt foxes during the winter months so the family can use the furs for clothing. To hunt foxes in this manner requires long horseback rides and climbs into the remote mountain areas. It requires great stamina and the ability to withstand icy conditions and temperatures of -40 degrees F. Even getting an eaglet to train is dangerous business, as we see when Aisholpan is captured on camera obtaining hers. But Eagle hunting is also a proud tradition and a celebration of a way of life, and every year eagle hunters gather to compete for the championship. So really, this film has a familiar training-for-the-big-event structure that we see in sports films, only the competition involves eagles. Call it a Mongolian rodeo.
Director Otto Bell and his skeleton crew (and equally skeletal budget) do a wonderful job of capturing life as it’s lived in the remote Altai Mountains and also telling Aisholpan’s story. It may be a documentary, but it’s a dramatic documentary, and it doesn’t end when the competition ends. It ends when Aisholpan meets all the challenges of an eagle hunter head-on—and that includes riding off with her father to try to get her first fox. And since the filmmakers use a Red Epic HD camera, drone, and small POV camera to capture her journey, the production values are as rich as the landscape and subject matter.
I said this was an inspirational film, and it is. The temptation would be to call it a film about women’s empowerment, but I agree with Aisholpan and her father. It’s not about men and women. It’s about a person doing what he or she was meant to do, about rising to the challenge, about finding the strength to accomplish what some say is impossible. Yes, it’s about Aisholpan’s dream, but it’s also about good parenting—of being supportive and patient and instructive in ways that uplift and encourage.
The Eagle Huntress is a feel-good movie, whether you’re observing children in a remote school in Mongolia or watching some amazing footage of young Aisholpan as she uses her hand like a cobra to hypnotize a young eaglet before she wraps it in a blanket to take from its nest. If your family likes Animal Planet shows, this film will probably be of interest just because of the main focus on the bond that handlers form with their eagles, who spend a good percent of their lives in the same house as the family. That in itself is pretty amazing to see.
Now, convincing jaded teens to watch a documentary like this might be as much of a challenge as Aisholpan faced, because American children gravitate toward fiction. But it’s really an unobtrusive documentary. Though Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) narrates, the voiceover isn’t constant. Director Bell trusts his subjects to tell the story, with narration used to fill in gaps. My sense is that the best age group for this documentary will be those whose dreams are still being shaped—children in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades—in part because children always like to watch stories of those who are older than they are.