'The Eagle Huntress': Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Three set-pieces that feel like fiction, surrounded by more generic ethnographic material.

Documentary director Otto Bell follows a 13-year-old girl from Mongolia who is set to become the first woman to participate in an exclusively male tradition.

A 13-year-old girl from Mongolia is ready to train her own eagle to catch foxes in The Eagle Huntress, casually upending two millennia of Kazakh-Mongolian tradition that dictates this practice as the exclusive domain of men. Though billed as a documentary, British-born, U.S.-based filmmaker Otto Bell has made more of a docu-fiction hybrid, with some scenes clearly staged, cut and scored for dramatic effect. Combining an accessible story of social change with ethnographic insight and striking (if often barren) widescreen landscapes, this Sundance Kids title should be of interest in the educational arena, though it might be too obviously manipulative for nonfiction-loving arthouse patrons. That said, the presence of Morgan Spurlock as executive producer, as well as a closing-credits pop anthem from Australian sensation Sia — whose helmet-like hair incidentally recalls a falconry hood — can only help get this Huntress noticed by festivals and niche distributors.

Protagonist Aisholpan is the daughter of Agalai, a seventh-generation Master Eagle Hunter from the forbidding Altai Mountains in western Mongolia, where the nomadic, predominantly Muslim Kazakhs live in traditional gers, or yurts, in summer (in winter they often move to the cities). They have used Golden Eagles for generations to hunt for especially foxes, which are prized for their meat and furs (the latter a clear necessity during the harsh Mongolian winters). Naturally, Aisholpan started helping out her father years ago and by the time the film starts, she has progressed to the point where she feels ready to start training her own eagle to hunt — male-chauvinist traditions be damned.

Eagle Huntress is divided into roughly three sections. Firstly, Agalai and Aisholpan have to cull a young and wild female eagle from a nest perched high up a mountainside before the girl gets to train it, and can then participate in the traditional Golden Eagle Festival, where her father has won or placed very high numerous times. Lastly, Aisholpan and her young bird get to partake in the perilous wintertime fox hunt for the first time, which will be the true test of her prowess as an aspiring eagle huntress.

Editor Pierre Takal and Bell transform these three major events, roughly spread out over a year, into elaborate set-pieces that each dominate an act of the film, with smaller and quieter scenes of daily life at home (in summer) and at boarding school (in winter) and scenes of eagle training grouped around these three action-packed highlights. The high-stake events are staged by Bell as if they were part of a fiction film, with the hunting sequence, for example, containing impressive drone and tracking shots and with several sequences, such as the nest robbery, shot with multiple cameras (or repeated several times?).

Visually, the results are quite often striking, and they are also sharply cut together. But there’s a nagging suspicion throughout that there’s been more preparation for especially the set-pieces than would normally be the case on a documentary. How can the cameramen know beforehand in which direction a wild fox will be chased by Aisholpan and her father on horseback, so they can execute the perfect, minutes-long tracking shot in the right direction?

There isn’t a whole lot of psychological insight or conflict that arises from Aisholpan’s unusual choice either, with her parents supportive from the get-go. About as tragic as it gets is her mother’s admission, in voiceover, that now she doesn’t get to spend as much time with her daughter as she would like. This is indeed part of the film’s main problem, since the desire to amp up the tension in some scenes directly clashes with the practicalities and limitations of a documentary shoot. For example, it is highly unlikely the protagonist’s parents would have admitted a foreign camera crew into their yurt only to then crush their daughter’s dreams of becoming an eagle huntress while the cameras are rolling.

As a result, there isn’t that much personal drama to film, so the stakes need to be raised in other ways. Besides injecting tension into the three action sequences through cutting and the use of music, the best the film can do is cut together some awkward glances from onlookers at the festival to suggest that not everyone likes the fact a girl has entered an until-now exclusively male domain. Some (or perhaps all, it’s never quite clear) of the tribe elders also express their reservations or disagreement with Aisholpan’s breach with tradition in several rapidly edited montage sequences in which they speak directly to camera (a clear documentary convention). But they seem to be used more as a rather basic form of comic relief — look at these old codgers clinging to their silly traditions, we’ll prove them wrong! — rather than to provide any insight into how this traditional Kazakh community might actually deal with potential change. Tween audiences will be transported no doubt — if they survive Eagle Huntress' bloody prologue involving the offering of a lamb, that is — but a part of the older audience might be left wanting.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Sundance Kids)
Production companies: Kissaki Films, 19340 Productions, Stacey Reiss Productions
Director: Otto Bell
Producers: Sharon Chang, Stacey Reiss
Executive producers: Morgan Spurlock, Jeremy Chilnick, Dan Cogan, Regina K. Scully, Marc H. Simon, Barbara Dobkin, Susan Maclaury, Daisy Ridley
Director of photography: Simon Niblett
Editor: Pierre Takal
Music: Jingle Punks, Julianna Barwick
Sales: CAA

Not rated, 87 minutes