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Tender and Powerful Documentary: The Eagle Huntress

The Eagle Huntress is a documentary film by Otto Bell that follows the loveable character Aisholpan, a teenage Kazakh girl from a nomadic family in Mongolia, who attempts to become the first female eagle hunter.

Eagle hunting is predominantly taught to males and involves first building a connection with a golden eagle, and then taking it out to hunt foxes and hares.

Aisholpan the teenage Eagle Huntress. (Image via Sony Pictures Classics YouTube/Screenshot)

Aisholpan, the teenage eagle huntress. (Image via Sony Pictures Classics YouTube/Screenshot)

Aisholpan is taught by her father Nurgaiv, a prominent eagle hunter. This is the first time in 12 generations that this tradition is being passed on to a daughter.

The film shows Aisholpan working her way toward competing at the annual Golden Eagle Festival in Ulgi.

Competitors at the Golden Eagle Festival. (Image via Sony Pictures Classics YouTube/Screenshot)

Competitors at the Golden Eagle Festival. (Image via Sony Pictures Classics YouTube/Screenshot)

Aisholpan comes up against many people in the eagle hunting community that reject the idea of a female competing in this ancient tradition. Regardless of this, her family supports her dream.

Some, but not all of the negative opinions, turn once she begins to prove her skills in competition, breaking records and winning hearts.

Aisholpan at home with her family in their ger (traditional Mongolian Nomadic tent). (Image via Sony Pictures Classics YouTube/Screenshot)

Aisholpan at home with her family in their ger, which is a traditional Mongolian nomadic tent. (Image via Sony Pictures Classics YouTube/Screenshot)

British filmmaker Otto Bell first came across her story by way of a series of BBC photos taken by Israeli photographer Asher Svidensky of Aisholpan training with her father’s eagle. Bell got in touch with the photographer who arranged for him to meet with the family, and who agreed to Bell’s request to document the journey.

Aisholpan and her father Nurgaiv looking for an eaglet in a nest. (Image via Sony Pictures Classics YouTube/Screenshot)

Aisholpan and her father Nurgaiv looking for an eaglet in a nest. (Image via Sony Pictures Classics YouTube/Screenshot)

Bell worked with a small crew of three. The first thing they filmed was Aisholpan capturing her own eaglet to train. The nest was on a cliff face, so she had to descend with a rope tied around her waist that her father held from above. They had limited time before the mother returned to the nest, but the operation went smoothly, and Aisholpan successfully captured a young eaglet to train.

Aisholpan's mother just wants her daughter to be happy to follow her dream and to stay safe. (Image via Sony Pictures Classics YouTube/Screenshot)

Aisholpan’s mother just wants her daughter to be happy, follow her dream, and to stay safe. (Image via Sony Pictures Classics YouTube/Screenshot)

Aisholpan comes from a nomadic family that spends their summers in a yert in the Atlai Mountains of northwest Mongolia. During the winter, they move to a house in town where Aisholpan goes to a boarding school with other girls.

Aisholpan and her dad make their journey together to the Golden Eagle Festival. (Image via Sony Pictures Classics YouTube/Screenshot)

Aisholpan and her dad make their journey together to the Golden Eagle Festival. (Image via Sony Pictures Classics YouTube/Screenshot)

The film is set in the Kazakh language with subtitles, while Daisy Ridley narrates parts of it to make it understandable for people of all ages. Daisy Ridley contacted the filmmaker after watching an early edit of the film. She wanted to be part of the project and help in any way, after being moved by Aisholpan’s story.

Otto Bell ran out of money to film the final part of Aisholpan’s journey when she takes her eagle to hunt for a fox in the mountains in winter.

Aisholpan paints her nails after feeding her eagle as she prepares for the Golden Eagle Festival. (Image via Sony Pictures Classics YouTube/Screenshot)

Aisholpan paints her nails after feeding her eagle as she prepares for the Golden Eagle Festival. (Image via Sony Pictures Classics YouTube/Screenshot)

Bell contacted documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), who agreed to come onboard as an executive producer. He suggested adding a pop song to the film. Bell didn’t agree at first, but eventually decided to contact pop musician Sia. Sia said yes, and within a couple of days she recorded a song called Angel by the Wings. The director was pleased with the result as it carried the exact message and tone that he wanted to convey in the film.

Aisholpan at the competition. (Image via Sony Pictures Classics YouTube/Screenshot)

Aisholpan at the competition. (Image via Sony Pictures Classics YouTube/Screenshot)

Bell was able to film the final act, Aisholpan’s last test before becoming an eagle hunter. She traveled with her father to the mountains in the winter to hunt, braving snowy conditions and extreme cold. The filmmaker set out to film over 5 days, but it eventually took 22 days before the eaglet successfully killed its first fox.

Aisholpan taking first place in the Golden Eagle Festival. (Image via Sony Pictures Classics YouTube/Screenshot)

Aisholpan taking first place in the Golden Eagle Festival. (Image via Sony Pictures Classics YouTube/Screenshot)

Two years after the film, Aisholpan continues to work with her eagle, but she also plans to study medicine and become a doctor. She is also trying to use her newfound fame from the film to raise funds to build a school so that children in her area have better access to education.

Aisholpan carrying her 10 kg eagle in winter as she takes her final steps to prove herself as an Eagle Hunter. (Image via Sony Pictures Classics YouTube/Screenshot)

Aisholpan carrying her 22 pound (10 kg) eagle in winter as she takes her final steps to prove herself as an eagle hunter. (Image via Sony Pictures Classics YouTube/Screenshot)

During an interview with Rama Screen, Aisholphan gave a little piece of advice to a boy or girl who wants to become an eagle hunter:

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