It has great cinematography. Deep connections between humans and animals. And a ton of female empowerment.
Still, “The Eagle Huntress” is troubling when it comes to documentary authenticity: Chunks of this “nonfiction” picture feel as if they were re-staged for the camera.
Set in the mountains and rolling plains of Mongolia, Otto Bell’s doc follows 13-year-old Aisholpan, the daughter of the nomadic herder Nurgaiv. Like countless generations before him, Nurgaiv puts food on his family’s table by capturing and training golden eagles that act like highly skilled hunting dogs.
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It’s a father-to-son tradition that is about to get a swift kick in the keister. Aisholpan — with her doting father’s cooperation — is determined to own and train her own eagle. Moreover, she plans on competing in a sort of avian rodeo that attracts participants from hundreds of miles.
So this sweet, totally inoffensive youngster is about to weather not only the rigors of eagle hunting but the disapproval of the patriarchal society into which she was born.
After an introductory segment that explains the eagle hunting tradition (“Star Wars” actress Daisy Ridley provides the narration) and some of the details of Aisholpan’s life (she attends a boarding school in a regional town and only gets home on the weekends) the film captures the efforts of Aisholpan and her father to descend down a cliff face on ropes to snatch a baby eaglet from its aerie.
The idea is to grab a young bird when it’s strong enough to survive outside the nest but not yet able to fly. (Though it’s not explained in the film, this was the first scene shot by Bell and his crew, who fortuitously visited Nurgaiv’s campsite on the very day the father and daughter were planning the adventure.)
This is followed by months of bonding and practice, a visit to the big eagle festival — where Aisholpan and her bird stun the competition — and on to a winter hunt that will prove once and for all whether this teenage girl has the right stuff.
“The Eagle Hunter” is drop-dead gorgeous. It’s inspiring. Animal lovers will go nuts for it.
But for this reviewer, anyway, there remains a question of just how truly “documentary” the film is.
The problem (if it is a problem) is that Simon Niblett’s cinematography is so sophisticated — with complicated tracking shots and dramatic camera setups that mimic fictional filmmaking — that it doesn’t look quite natural. It certainly doesn’t look like the caught-on-the-fly spontaneity one expects of a documentary.
The film might be more convincing were it a bit less technically polished.
A second issue is that while Aisholpan appears to be a determined young woman (at least based on her actions), she’s not a very interesting personality. Her matter-of-fact approach to smashing paternalistic tradition is low-key in the extreme. She doesn’t say much, allowing her beaming countenance to do most of the talking.
On the one hand, this allows the viewer to project his or her own interpretations on Aisholpan. On the other, it may leave some audience members wanting more.
(At the Glenwood Arts, Tivoli.)
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s film coverage at butlerscinemascene.com.
‘The Eagle Huntress’
Rated G. Time: 1:27.