Mongolian eagle hunting — and dreams — take wing on screen
The Hollywood Reporter says China is getting ready to up the quota of foreign-made films allowed into the country from 34 to 44.
One they should definitely let through the gate is The Eagle Huntress from Sony Pictures Classics, which this writer was lucky enough to see at an advance screening in New York City on Monday.
It’s a docudrama about a 13-year-old Kazakh girl — Aisholpan — who wants to defy thousands of years of tradition and become — like her father and his father before him and on and on for 12 generations — an eagle hunter. Just to be clear, this ancient art is not hunting down eagles but using magnificent trained golden eagles to hunt — usually foxes, rabbits and the occasional mountain goat or wolf.
While some of the old guard pooh-pooh the very idea of a girl even imagining such a thing, Aisholpan’s father, Nurgaiv, one of the all time greatest dads in any movie ever, is all for it. Her mother is too. Nurgaiv is not only an expert eagle hunter, he’s won the big eagle hunters championship twice.
“There is no gender discrimination when it comes to hunting with eagles,” Nurgaiv says. “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.”
Aisholpan, whose chronic shyness is only part of her charm, says, “I was 10 years old when I decided I wanted to be an eagle huntress. Girls and boys are just as strong: if a boy can do something, girls can do it as well.”
The movie takes you into the vast breathtaking expanses of Mongolia and the Altai Mountain range, where winter temperatures regularly dip to minus 40 Fahrenheit and rugged little Mongolian horses are the only way to get in and out of the hunting tracts.
No spoiler alert here, but when you see these birds up close — they weigh 15 pounds, stand 3 feet tall and have a wing span of 6 feet — and this beaming apple-cheeked kid hold out her arm for one to swoop out of the sky and land on (oh yes, and she is on horseback at full gallop), your immediate reaction is to jump up and cheer.
As executive producer Morgan Spurlock, the director of Super Size Me, put it: “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.”
The film premiered at Sundance in January and at the time, according to press notes, everybody was talking about the new Star Wars movie. Spurlock, who helped director Otto Bell get the film wrapped up, saw a connection between Aishlopan and the Daisy Ridley character “Rey” in the new Star Wars film.
“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 said. “This film resonates in that space in a massive way.”
He arranged to show Daisy 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,” Bell said.
Not only did Ridley go aboard as executive producer, she also recorded the narrative voice over for the theatrical version.
The movie is not just about breaking age-old barriers of tradition, and it’s not just about keeping an ancient (and thrilling) sport (and human-raptor relationship) alive, it’s about a young girl looking back at 12 generations of tradition and saying, “I want to do that too.” And doing it. It’s a stunning reminder that young people’s dreams are meant to soar.
A still from the new film TheEagleHuntress, with Aisholpan and her father Nurgaiv.