The words Mongolian documentary probably don’t have you racing to the cinema very often, but Eagle Huntress is a crowd-pleasing delight which is well worth seeing on the big screen.
This is the story of Aisholpan, a 13-year-old Mongolian girl who has her sights set on becoming an eagle hunter. She has the enthusiastic support of her father, Rys, who sees in her all the qualities needed to succeed in this hitherto male-dominated domain.
Eagles are a big part of life in the wilds of Mongolia and Kazakhstan. They are used by nomads to track down and capture foxes and other animals that form a large part of the local diet and clothing.
We witness the stringent training that Aisholpan goes through, firstly to enter her first eagle wrangling competition before putting her skills to the test in a real-life hunting situation.
It’s extraordinary that a 13-year old girl can have the strength to just ride a horse through rocky terrain while keeping a large bird of prey on one arm, let alone all the really high risk things she does, like scale a cliff face to nab an eaglet from it’s highly perched nest.
Aisholpan is truly a source of inspiration and wonder, as his her father, who is such a pillar of support and encouragement. They admirably pay little heed to the senior figures in the community, all male, who frequently appear on camera to voice their cynicism and disapproval, explaining that a female could never be any good at eagle hunting, with such considered reasons as “women get cold”
Adding to the experience is Simon Niblett’s extraordinary cinematography (literally bird’s eye view some of the time) and Pierre Takal’s fluid editing. We see many of the big set-pieces from multiple camera angles.
Debut Brit director Otto Bell shows a sure hand with the action sequences and is content to let the simple story speak for itself most of the time. Daisy Ridley provides a bare bones English narrative at certain points, otherwise this is a rare Kazakh language feature film.
The score by Jeff Peters is laden with heavy drums to get the heart-rate rising during the climactic scenes, while Sia adds to her rapidly increasing end-credit music résumé with one of her trademark uplifting anthems.
At it’s core The Eagle Huntress is simply a great story with universal appeal, made all the more enthralling thanks to the humble, always smiling, never say never Aisholpan, who clearly enjoys every challenge set for her.
It’s also a wonderful portrayal of the close bond between father and daughter, and of the bond between a young girl and the bird she raises from infancy.
This is an unexpected treat.
The Eagle Huntress is in limited release from March 16
Richard Leathem @dickiegee