THE EAGLE HUNTRESS follows Aisholpan, a 13-year-old girl, as she trains to become the first female in twelve generations of her Kazakh family to become an eagle hunter, and rises to the pinnacle of a tradition that has been handed down from father to son for centuries.
Set against the breathtaking expanse of the Mongolian steppe, THE EAGLE HUNTRESS features some of the most awe-inspiring cinematography ever captured in a documentary, giving this intimate tale of a young girl's quest the dramatic force of an epic narrative film.
While there are many old Kazakh eagle hunters who vehemently reject the idea of any female taking part in their ancient tradition, Aisholpan's father Nurgaiv believes that a girl can do anything a boy can, as long as she's determined.
The story begins after Aisholpan has been training with her father's eagle for many months. As every eagle can only have one master, the time has come for Aisholpan to capture an eagle of her own. Clambering down a sheer rock cliff with a rope, Aisholpan retrieves a fledgling eagle from its nest as its mother circles overhead. Her eagle will live, train, and hunt with her, until she releases it into the wild years later, so the cycle of life can continue.
After months of training her eagle with her father, Aisholpan is ready to test her abilities. She enters a renowned competition, the Golden Eagle Festival, and faces off against 70 of the greatest Kazakh eagle hunters in Mongolia.
The most arduous challenge is yet to come, as the rite-of-passage for every young eagle hunter is to take part in a hunt. Aisholpan must ride with her father deep into the frigid mountains and endure 40 below zero temperatures and perilous landscapes to prove she is a true eagle huntress.
THE EAGLE HUNTRESS is executive produced and narrated by STAR WARS's Daisy Ridley. Like Ridley's character "Rey," Aisholpan never doubts her ability to be as strong or brave as any boy. She recognizes no obstacles and refuses to have her ambition denied. While she practices an ancient art, Aisholpan's story is a modern and inspiring one because she represents a world where a young girl's dreams—no matter how challenging—can come true.
Directed by Otto Bell, THE EAGLE HUNTRESS is narrated by Daisy Ridley, executive produced by Ridley and Morgan Spurlock, and produced by Stacy Reiss, Sharon Chang and Otto Bell. The director of photography is Simon Niblett, the editor is Pierre Takal and the film features a stirring end credits song, "Angel by the Wings," by Sia.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
THE EAGLE HUNTRESS began when director Otto Bell first laid eyes on one of the most remarkable images he had ever seen: a radiant young girl on a mountain top, joyfully casting a majestic eagle into the air.
The pictures of the girl, Aisholpan, taken by Israeli photographer Asher Svidensky, enchanted Bell, but the BBC News headline, "A 13-Year-Old Eagle Huntress in Mongolia," intrigued him even more. "It was like my senses joined up for a second," he says. "I knew that somewhere in the world this girl was out there walking around. There was a film that needed to be made about her—and I wanted to be the one to make it."
Bell was undeterred by the fact that he had never made a single feature documentary before. Up until then, he had traveled the globe making branded content short documentaries. "I'd go live with a Chilean doctor, or a Brazilian cop, or a Russian electrical worker or a Vietnamese coconut milk saleswoman," he says. "All my films were intimate portraits of everyday people." But he hungered to do something on a larger scale than his shorts. He tracked down Svidensky on Facebook, and they began to discuss the idea of a film.
As they began talking, Svidensky's photos started going viral, appearing on sites like National Geographic and Huffington Post. "I saw this as a kind of proof," says Bell. "If so many others felt as strongly about the photos as I did, then I had to be on to something." Unfortunately, it also meant that other filmmakers were also reaching out to Svidensky with proposals. While Svidensky was loyal, Bell knew he had to move quickly or risk losing his chance. So he took a leap of faith and took off for Mongolia with Svidensky and cameraman Chris Raymond.
After arriving in the nation's capital, Ulaanbataar, the three boarded a twin prop plane headed towards Ölgii, a small village in the Bayan-Ölgii province in northwest Mongolia. As Bell flew over the stunning, sparsely populated Mongolian landscape, he was struck by its otherworldly beauty. Just as he did when he first saw Svidensky's photograph of the girl on the mountain, he felt like he was looking through a window centuries into the past. "I knew that if I was going to do justice to her story, I would have to find a way to make people feel like I did at that moment," says Bell.
After landing in Ölgii, Bell and his team took a two hour ride on a rickety Soviet bus before they arrived at Aisholpan's family ger (nomadic dwelling) settled next to a mountainside in a remote area of Bayan-Ölgii. "The first time I saw Aisholpan, having flown across the world to see her, was incredible," says Bell. "They are very reserved people, so I had to keep my feelings in check, but inside I was punching the air." As they all sat down for a drink of traditional milky Kazakh tea, and began discussing ideas for the film, Aisholpan's father, Nurgaiv, said: "Me and my daughter are going to steal a balapan (young eagle) from its nest this morning. Is that the kind of thing you'd like to film?"
Nurgaiv's unexpected offer was both thrilling and scary for Bell. He knew that the potential for an extremely dramatic scene had been dropped in his lap, but he hadn't come with enough equipment to shoot it properly—Raymond's Canon C300 Mark 1 (1080p), Svidensky's DSLR, and a tiny GoPro camera, wasn't enough for the coverage a scene like this would require. He didn't even have a soundman—just a pocket Zoom digital recorder he brought along to use for interviews. He couldn't ask Aisholpan to redo her capture of the eagle—he would only get one chance.
But Bell made do. He stationed Raymond below so he could establish the vastness of the setting and show how high Aisholpan and Nurgaiv were. (Raymond was afraid of heights anyway.) He and Svidensky climbed the mountain and scaled down to the ledge where Nurgaiv was tying Aisholpan with rope. Bell attached the GoPro to the inside of Aisholpan's sweater so he could get some shots from her point of view.
Just as Aisholpan was clambering over the edge, Bell asked her to linger for a moment so that he and Svidensky could drop down to a lower ledge—with a hand from their driver—to film her trajectory from below. "Asher is a big guy," says Bell. "It was very dangerous." The two were now situated on a precarious ledge to the left of where Aisholpan was attempting to snag the eagle. "Asher didn't have a tripod, so I was just trying to get him to hold it steady," says Bell. "I was holding the Zoom up, talking in Asher's ear trying to get him to hold focus, and meanwhile we have the mother eagle circling overhead. We only had one bite of the cherry to get this."
After Aisholpan climbed back up to the top ledge, Bell and Svidensky had to ascend yet another time to capture the shot of Aisholpan and her eagle. "If it looks smooth," says Bell, "I give the credit to Pierre Takal, our editor, because it was ragtag!"
Bell had survived shooting this vital sequence, but he didn't want the rest of his film to be made in such a frenetic way. He knew that if he told Aisholpan's story merely as stripped-down cinema-verité, it would actually not evoke the unreality of what it was like to actually be there. He had to capture the epic qualities of Mongolian landscape. "It's so vast and cinematic," he says. "The only way you can get your arms around it is from the air."
The only problem with making the epic film he had in mind was that he didn't have any money—it would all be coming out of his limited savings, and maxing out his credit cards. Staffing up with a proper crew would not be possible. Even a soundman would be an extravagance, so Bell would have to carry on with his little Zoom recorder. Bell was not worried, because he knew he could achieve amazing results using inexpensive equipment. After all the years of paying crew members top rates on his shorts, he had some friends he could call on for favors.
Most important was his long-time collaborator, director of photography Simon Niblett. Not only was Niblett willing to help Bell realize his dream, he packed a self-made drone and a crane along with his camera and suitcase. A self-described nerd, Niblett has been building his own film equipment for years, all designed to be packed into small cases. He was the first person in the UK to fly a RED ONE digital camera on one of his creations. Niblett also built a thirty-foot crane, based on the idea of a ship's mast, which they were able to put into a snowboarder's bag for the filming of THE EAGLE HUNTRESS. The drones were used not only for the soaring aerial photography, but also as virtual "tripods in the sky," where they could hold rock solid on unusual angles. The crane was used for any shots involving camera moves close to people or in situations where harsh weather made it impossible for the drones to fly. The filmmakers even made an "eagle cam" from a dog's harness to create an actual birds-eye view.
Working with equipment of this nature and a full-sized 4K EPIC camera does not allow for fly-on-the-wall filmmaking. Bell and Niblett had to find the balance between making a film that was true to its subject and yet as majestic as a Hollywood blockbuster. Most of what they did was no different from what's done in nearly all documentaries. On occasion, their subjects were asked to perform actions more than once, but they were never asked to do things differently than they would otherwise. "I have watched a lot of documentary filmmakers work over the years," says Bell, "and some of them are quite shameless about how much they will ask everyday people to repeat things and again and again. I don't really have that gene, and I get very nervous and angst-ridden about that when I know they've had a long day." Bell proceeded cautiously as he built his relationship with Aisholpan and her family. "It was hard, as she's a 13-year-old girl who's chronically shy, and I didn't speak the language," says Bell. "I concentrated on my relationship with her mom and dad first, to get them comfortable. They are very reserved and stoic people, so I had to respect that as I approached them. It took awhile, but over time she and I really built a friendship." Filmmaker Martina Radwan stayed with Aisholpan and her family for two weeks, and captured many of the "day in the life" moments in the film like scenes of Aisholpan at school, the family eating dinner, and ice-skating with her friends. "We wanted to give the audience a window into the everyday life of Aisholpan," says Bell.
Bell shot his interviews with the Kazakh eagle hunter elders during his first trip to Mongolia in the village of Sagsai, where many of them live. Finding his interview subjects by literally going door to door, he asked them more general questions about eagle hunting before bringing the conversation around to female eagle hunters, eliciting the patronizing remarks heard in the film—that women are "too fragile" or "not brave enough" to hunt with a Golden Eagle.
Living in remote places and devoting their lives to a centuries-old tradition, the octogenarian eagle hunter elders represent the most reactionary ideas about women's roles among Kazakhs and in Mongolia in general. Still, as Aisholpan's parents' support for her dream attests, there is a wide spectrum of Kazakh views. "There is no gender discrimination when it comes to hunting with eagles," says Nurgaiv. "Anyone who is capable of hunting with an eagle is allowed to do so. Aisholpan is a very brave girl. She rides horses, climbs rocks and hunts with eagles easily, like a boy. I am very proud of her." Says Aisholpan: "Girls and boys are just as strong: if a boy can do something, girls can do it as well."
At the same time, there is a long history of patriarchal ideas and customs among Kazakhs, many of which exist today in the average ger. As scholar Dennis Keen has pointed out: "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 old eagle hunters would reflexively object to the idea of a girl hunting eagles, even though there is no set rule against it.
Aisholpan's desire to become an eagle huntress was not a sudden impetuous request. "I was ten years old when I decided I wanted to be an eagle huntress," says Aisholpan. Says Bell: "If there was an American girl who suddenly said, ‘Dad, I want to be a bull rider!' we might wonder where that came from," says Bell. "But if she'd been standing at the paddock every day for the last thirteen years looking at the bulls, you might say, ‘I knew this day would come.'"
While Aisholpan is not the first modern Kazakh eagle huntress—Makpal Abdrazakova, a lawyer from Kazakhstan preceded her—she is the first Mongolian female to compete at the Golden Eagle Festival in Ölgii and win, defeating 70 veteran eagle hunters. But Aisholpan's win was particularly spectacular—a record setter. A terrific time for an eagle to swoop down from a mountaintop and land on its master's arm is 30 seconds. In many cases the birds simply fly away. Aisholpan's eagle flew to her arm in five seconds, the fastest recorded time to date.
After Aisholpan's triumph, Bell returned to Sagsai to find out how the eagle hunter elders would respond to her defeating so many of them. Unsurprisingly, they dismissed her victory, and maintained that for Aisholpan to prove that she is a real eagle huntress, she would have to successfully hunt a fox with her eagle.
While Aisholpan's victory would provide a stirring conclusion for the movie, Bell knew that he had to come back and film the hunt. Unfortunately, he had run out of money. "I knew we had to get back somehow for the winter hunt," says Bell. "I couldn't leave the family in the lurch, with such an important story to tell."
Bell put together a ten-minute teaser trailer and sent it to famed director/producer Morgan Spurlock (SUPER SIZE ME). "I was blown away," says Spurlock. "It looked incredible, and Aisholpan's story is one of the most empowering stories I think you could ever hear." Spurlock helped Bell find financing, gave him access to equipment, and he brought in veteran producer Stacey Reiss to guide the film through its two remaining shoots and post-production.
With financing secured, Bell returned to Mongolia with the largest crew he had to date—four people, including a soundman, Andrew Yarme—to shoot the hunt scenes. Although the hunt looks like it takes place during one day, it actually took 22 days to film, as it was impossible for the crew to say out in the -40 weather for more than a few hours at a time. To make matters worse, Bell broke his arm shortly before he left and had to cope with the bitter cold while wearing a cast. "We dress warm for hunting," says Aisholpan, "but it was not easy." Says Bell: "I bet the people making THE REVENANT had warm blankets. We did not. We had to light fires underneath the engine block of our van in order to get it to turn over. Our hands stuck to the tripods and everything metal. We were looking for wild foxes in the middle of the tundra, and Aisholpan's eagle was sometimes too frozen to fly aggressively."
The filmmakers were experiencing the arduous reality of eagle hunting—something that few people can endure or quite frankly, would want to endure. This is why Aisholpan's desire and ability to do it is so extraordinary. "One day just for fun when we were finished filming, I sat on one of their horses with Aisholpan's eagle on my arm," says Reiss. "I could barely hold my arm up—it's a very heavy bird. That alone is not easy to do, but when you see Aisholpan riding her horse at full gallop, it's incredible." Says Spurlock: "It makes me really emotional to watch Aisholpan catch her eagle. There are things that you see that are such feats of human endeavor that you can't even put words to them—they leave you speechless. I don't even know how many times I've watched the film and I cry every time."
During the filming of the hunt, the team stayed in Altai Village, home of Dalaikhan, a long-time friend of Nurgaiv's. One of the things that had fascinated Bell the most about eagle hunters was their custom of giving their eagles back to nature after seven years. "Dalaikhan told me that he'd had his eagle for almost eight years, so it was time for him to give it back," says Bell. "Even though he would normally do it in the spring, he agreed to do it in the winter. It was another one of the things that just fell into my lap on this film." Bell liked the idea of defying expectations by using this scene to open the film. "People expect that they are going to see a film about a really strong little girl, and what they see instead is a bloody sacrifice by an old man," he says. "But I wanted to make an important point about the circle of life: After we see this scene, Aisholpan captures her eagle—you could say that an ‘old guard' is leaving and a young girl is picking up the baton."
Shortly before the film premiered at Sundance in January 2016, STAR WARS was the topic of every conversation and Spurlock saw a link between Daisy Ridley's character "Rey" and Aisholpan. "There's a moment that's happening in our world and our time right now where we are giving voice and power to young women in a way that hasn't ever happened before," he says. "I think that this film resonates in that space in a massive way." Spurlock arranged to show Ridley the film, and Bell called her soon afterwards. "She told me about how she'd been curled up in a ball watching it in her living room crying, and she talked in great detail about specific moments," says Bell. "And it was clear that she was going to be willing to help us promote it any way she could." Not only did Ridley come aboard as executive producer, she later recorded the narration for the theatrical version of the film.
Ultimately, THE EAGLE HUNTRESS is not about Aisholpan breaking a barrier, picking up a prize at a festival, or proving a point to some crotchety old men. She is not the only eagle huntress in Central Asia, and she is not the only girl in Central Asia or the world who has accomplished something amazing. It's simply that after 12 generations of eagle hunters in her family passing on an ancient tradition from father to son, Aisholpan was the first girl to say "I want to do this!" It never occurred to her that she couldn't be an eagle hunter, because her father and mother did not bring her up to think that way. In her sunny countenance, strength and courage, Aisholpan is a glowing metaphor for a world that refuses to say no to the soaring dreams of little girls. "This entire journey is about her personal victory," says Bell. "That's why I end the film so quietly, with Aisholpan and her dad riding off into the sunset and heading home."