The Eagle Huntress begins the way all serious documentaries are legally required to, with clipped British tones (provide by incumbent Star Wars heroine Daisy Ridley) solemnly narrating over one of Mongolia’s finest helicopter shots. What sets this film apart from similar explorations of culture and tradition is the unique story that it is built around.
The titular Eagle Huntress is Aisholpan Nurgaiv, a thirteen year old girl who lives in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia. The semi-nomadic Kazhak people maintain the ancient practice of hunting foxes with Golden Eagles, a sport which has until now been the domain of men. Aisholpan’s father and grandfather were both champion eagle hunters and she is determined to carry on the family tradition.
The film is visually stunning – there’s really no way it couldn’t be, considering its subject and setting. One of the best sequences happens early on, when Aisholpan attempts to capture an eagle chick to train. Her precarious climb down the mountain, the race-against-time to retrieve the eaglet and return before its mother does – here are all the elements of a high stakes action sequence. Unfortunately, it all ends up buried under the rather heavy-handed score, which intrudes even in moments of real tension, splitting the entire film into the aural dichotomy of ‘intense drumbeat’ (for when things go badly) and ‘uplifting vocals’ (for when things go well).
This problem with the soundtrack might be a minor quibble, but it’s the clearest symptom of the essential problem of the documentary. Aisholpan is easy to like – she is endlessly cheerful and determined, and all the scenes of her working with her eaglet are impressive to watch. Yet it’s as if the stoic nature that makes her so good at eagle hunting puts her at odds with the story that the director, Otto Bell, is trying to tell. The documentary spends plenty of time emphasising the opposition that Aisholpan faces, as a girl attempting to take on a traditionally male role, and it’s obvious that she will have to fight to be recognised for her skills. None of this conflict ever really plays out onscreen however, instead we are shown a montage of unnamed older men voicing their disapproval, a condemnation that never seems to affect Aisholpan too seriously.
The true heart of the film is the relationship between Aisholpan and her father, Nurgaiv, and the scenes of them training the eaglet together are some of the most touching and engaging. As her teacher and greatest supporter, he comes across as a somewhat philosophical man who is determined to preserve his culture in the face of a changing world. This is the documentary’s secondary thread – a people who are fiercely proud of their traditions, keeping them alive even as they lose their place in modern life.
There’s no doubt that The Eagle Huntress has a fascinating story to tell, though its attempts to force that story into the familiar beats of an overly simple girl-power narrative ends up undercutting its power somewhat. But by the time the credits roll, and Sia melodiously assures us that we, too, can do anything, it’s clear that this overriding theme of female empowerment is what the film’s creators thought was most important – which in itself, is probably an admirable enough intention to make it all worth it.