Aisholpan Nurgaiv was only thirteen when she became the first female to compete at an all-male eagle hunting competition. She also won. This documentary by Otto Bell tells a little bit about her story and her journey towards becoming an eagle hunter in the Mongolian steppe. Aisholpan and her family are members of the Kazakh population, a Turkic-speaking people who claim ties to Genghis Khan. Despite the forbidding landscape, Aisholpan and her father move through it on their horses with a practiced ease.
The story presented is so compelling: a young girl defies the strict patriarchal limitations imposed by her culture and becomes one of the first female eagle hunters. The trouble with this narrative is that while it is true the activity is male-dominated, there is a documented history of female eagle hunters. This fact makes sense because I expected Aisholpan to face challenges to her entry into the festival, and there were no public challenges. Something did not exactly add up for me here.
Furthermore, the only way I knew about the documented history was because I had to research a lot about Kazakh culture. The film told me precious little about the culture, the people, or even the tradition of eagle hunting. The entire film did not have to be a National Geographic episode, but some context and a little bit about the culture would have been nice. Aisholpan’s culture does matter, and I fervently wish Otto Bell had paid more attention to what he was doing when he made the film.
Maybe this is not fair because Aisholpan’s story is inspiring, and she is one of the toughest young women I have ever seen, yet she makes her work look easy. Imagine a thirteen-year-old girl carrying a fifteen-pound golden eagle on one arm while actively handling a horse on a mountain in a few feet of snow. Yes, she’s that tough. There was no need to exaggerate Aisholpan’s story, for she is remarkable without embellishment. Is this what documentary audiences demand nowadays?
I want to recommend the film and in some respects, I do. I have learned a little about the Kazakh culture because the film spurred me to research it on my own. I feel inspired by Aisholpan’s extraordinary journey and her early determination to compete in the all-male festival. She is a positive role model for young women. The landscape is also gorgeous and the eagle-eye images of the foothills and cliffs make some of the other less attractive aspects of this film fade into the background.
The Eagle Huntress, directed by Otto Bell. Starring Aisholpan Nurgaiv. Released in 2016 and available on DVD.