#FilmFriday: The Eagle Huntress (2016)

**Warning: Contains Spoilers**

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Aisholpan, a 13-year-old girl, defies years of patriarchal tradition to pursue her dream in becoming an Eagle Hunter. The Eagle Huntress (2016) provides viewers with an intrinsic view of her courageous journey and the steps required in mastering the craft. Being the first female Eagle Hunter in twelve generations, Aisholpan is stigmatized and doubted by the conservative elders in her society. The Kazakhs, a nomadic tribe of the Altai Mountains, have upheld their cultural relationship with Golden Eagles for over 4,000 years. This custom became essential for the Kazakhs to survive the harsh winters when food and furs were scarce.

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Aisholpan painting her sister’s nails outside their nomadic home

The documentary opens with a glance into Aisholpan’s daily life from her rural nomadic home to her more urban lifestyle at her boarding school by the Syr River. This insight displays how nomadic lifestyles are still relevant in Mongolia’s modern society and that their cultural traditions have not been diminished by Western enculturation. Algalai, her father, is a seventh generation Master Eagle Hunter and believes this bond between man and eagle maintains a necessary balance of nature. The Kazakh culture contains a strong emphasis on respecting the generosity of Mother Earth, which is why Eagle Hunters only partner with their Golden Eagle for seven years until they release it back into the wild. It is the ‘cycle of life’ and mankind should not overindulge in these gifts. The Eagle Huntress’s thematic focus on balanced relationships produces a cohesiveness between the bond of father & daughter, Aisholpan & her eagle, and mankind & nature.

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Aisholpan and her eagle mirror each other in spirit with a bond built on mutual respect

To develop Aisholpan’s observational portrait, the film follows the stages required to become a respected Eagle Hunter. First, Aisholpan must capture an eaglet of her choice. This rite of passage requires her to search for an eaglet that is about 3-months in age and scale down a steep cliff to reach the nest. She immediately builds a connection with the feisty female eaglet and captures it with ease. Aisholpan’s new companion naturally becomes an extension of herself. They immediately begin training. After a considerable amount of time, Aisholpan wants to participate in her first Golden Eagle Festival, the next step in becoming a respected Eagle Hunter. Algalai has been a successful competitor for many years and believes she is ready. However, he must first ask for her grandfather’s blessing. He first examines her eaglet and is proud to see it is an ‘ice foot’ eagle, a particularly hard breed to catch.  Her grandfather gives his blessings with pride.

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Aisholpan surrounded by male participants at the Golden Eagle Festival

Algalai decided it was best for Aisholpan to arrive at the Golden Eagle Festival unannounced. Upon arrival, many competitors send discriminatory glares and registration even chuckled. However, this did not kill Aisholpan’s spirits.The competition has three events to judge an eagle hunter’s including traditional attire (measured by their clothing, equipment, and riding style), an eagle’s speed (measured by the time it takes the eagle to attack a fox hide), and an eagle’s skill (measured by the time it takes the eagle to land on its handler’s arm when called). Aisholpan not only succeeded in these categories in flying colors, but also broke the record for speed with a time under 5 seconds. She won her first festival while being the youngest and only female competitor. With immense admiration, her father says “She is as strong as any man”.

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Aisholpan and her father following fox tracks on her first hunt

Throughout the documentary, the demeaning opinions of conservatives elders are juxtaposed with Aisholpan’s accomplishments. Their ‘traditional’ perspective prohibits women from being an eagle hunter because they are too fragile to gain respect from this strong animal. Some commented that women are made to handle domestic affairs (such as preparing tea, milking cows, and nurturing the children) while waiting for their hunting husbands to return home. After hearing about Aisholpan’s victory at the Golden Eagle Festival, the elders were shown in a state of shock. They quickly counter-argued that she will not be a ‘true’ Eagle Hunter until she completes her first fox hunt in the harsh winter. A conservative interviewee thinks, “She will grow bored [as an Eagle Hunter] because she will have to get married”.Following this statement, Aisholpan and her father prepare for her final step in becoming a respected Eagle Hunter, a traditional fox hunt. In the bitter cold of -40*F, Aisholpan’s eagle failed to latch onto a fox after several attempts. Her father senses her discouragement and encourages her to persist despite the odds. After an intense hunting sequence with striking drone and tracking shots, Aisholpan and her eagle completed their first successful fox hunt. She is now a true Eagle Hunter.

Overall, The Eagle Huntress is a commendable documentary that promotes feminist ideology while highlighting the importance of cultural traditions and the balance of nature. However, there are moments in the film that appear ‘staged’ or reenacted, bringing into question: What is genuine?

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Aisholpan and Algalai spotting a Golden Eagle nest

The capture of the eaglet as well as the final fox hunt were extremely impressive sequences for a genuine cinematic capture of the event. The scenes came across as rehearsed or repeated to comply with the abundant multiplicity of camera angles. Another nagging issue with this film is the empty narration, provided by Daisy Ridley. The narration failed to provide the ethnographic information that this documentary was seriously lacking. If the history of Kazakh culture was included, the film would have delivered an emic perspective regarding the why conservative elders’ dismissive response to Aisholpan’s participation as an Eagle Hunter. Although the film has disjointed moments, it is nonetheless an inspirational story with stunning cinematography; however, for those who are interested in cultural anthropology, this documentary will be a shortcoming.  As the first Eagle Huntress, Aisholpan’s accomplishment encourages women that they do not need to follow the cultural expectancies assigned to their gender role.

 

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