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Breaking the Barriers in ‘The Eagle Huntress’

Kazakh girl goes where no female has gone before

Nov. 15, 2016
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In the remote vastness of Mongolia, Kazakhs clinging to a semi-nomadic way of life inhabit a cold desert ringed by snowy mountains. The documentary The Eagle Huntress focuses on a 13-year old, Aisholpan, a girl dreaming of doing something no Kazakh girl had ever done before.

As shown in The Eagle Huntress, the Kazakhs have maintained the peculiar practice of hunting with carefully trained golden eagles. As with most forms of hunting in traditional societies, this has always been men’s work. The women stay near the yurt, milking the cows, cooking, keeping house. Aisholpan breaks with custom by following her father into the mountains as he pursues foxes, the source of the meat and fur garments enabling the Kazakhs to survive the bitter winter, with his eagle companion. The cameras stay close as Aisholpan snatches a young eagle from its mother’s nest on a sheer cliff and begins the rigorous process of training her own bird to hunt—and to compete in the annual eagle hunting festival held in the provincial capital. 

Aisholpan’s family is supportive but not everyone agrees. The camera cuts to interviews with wrinkled Kazakh fuddy-duds who oppose her. “Girls do not eagle hunt—women are weaker and more fragile,” one of them declares. But Aisholpan takes a modern view of the ancient practice of eagle hunting. “Girls can do anything boys can do if they try,” she insists.

Along with Aisholpan’s inevitable triumph as the festival, The Eagle Huntress is a fascinating look at a society in respectful harmony with nature, yet perched on the cusp of ancient and contemporary. Aisholpan attends a run-down but well-run boarding school Monday through Friday, where she learns to speak English as well as perform age-old Mongolian songs, and rides home for the weekend, on the back of her father’s motorbike, to the family yurt, a plastic sheet stretched over a wooden frame filled with a mix of traditional bric-a-brac and Western technology. In theme, The Eagle Huntress will remind world cinema buffs of the 2002 debut by New Zealand director Niki Caro, Whale Rider, in which a Maori girl breaks with custom and proves her merit alongside the boys.

The Eagle Huntress

Directed by Otto Bell

Rated G

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