There are documentaries than stun you with their on-the-fly immediacy, and others that annoy you with their obvious reliance on recreating the events they’re portraying. “The Eagle Huntress” falls into the second category, and thereby sugarcoats the tale of a barrier-breaking Mongolian girl to such an extent that the finished product feels a bit like a cheat, though admittedly a visually enthralling one.
The protagonist is Aisholpan Nurgaiv, who has been enthralled by the eagle hunting of her father Rhys since she was a tyke. The sport is a species of falconry practiced in various parts of Asia, in which one takes a wild eagle chick from its nest and raises and trains it to hunt in tandem with its human partner. In Mongolia, however, it has always been the province of men. Rhys, however, decides to encourage her interest, and in time she has a bird of her own and carefully nurtures a bond with it as it grows into an eaglet.
So successful is the training that Rhys enters Aisholpan in the annual Golden Eagle competition of eagle hunters that tests how successful the training has been. Though the youngest participant, and the only female, she triumphs, to the consternation of some of the older men, who sternly deplore the admission of a girl into the sport and express doubt that Aisholpan will prove herself worthy in an actual hunt.
That leads to the film’s final act, in which she and her father trek out into the wintry hills to track and kill a fox. Despite one moment when her horse gets trapped in a knee-high snowdrift, the hunt is successful, and proves the girl’s mettle. Some, of course, might think that fox-hunting is no more acceptable in a Mongolian context than a Western one, but the film ignores such issues of cultural difference, simply celebrating Aisholpan’s breaking of the sport’s glass ceiling.
Director Otto Bell, his cinematographer Simon Niblett and editor Pierre Takal take a few breaks from the eagle-hunting plot from time to time to visit Aisholpan at school, where she’s predictably rather a tomboy, or simply to sketch the Nurgaiv family’s home life, but mainly they concentrate on the girl’s groundbreaking accomplishment. The interviews with Rhys and less sympathetic males are basically straightforward, and throughout Aisholpan offers mostly banalities, but the film is obviously intended to be visual rather than verbal, and the outdoor sequences are often stunning, both those of father and daughter out in the wild and those at the colorful competition.
But one does get the feeling, from the elaborate camerawork and very direct narrative line, that much of what is being shown has been staged. That’s a technique as old as the form itself—one need think only of the work of Robert Flaherty. But you can’t help wondering whether a more warts-and=all treatment would not have been more revealing and enlightening. One might also blanch when, at the close, the score by Jingle Punks and Jeff Peters is overtaken by the pop song “Angel by the Wings” by the Australian singer Sia—which hammers home the story’s point rather crudely in the refrain “You Can Do Anything!”
Youngsters, especially girls, will be captivated by Aisholpan’s collaborative triumph with her pet, though others may feel that the film represents the Disneyfication of her story.