June 25, 2018

Is the Eagle Huntress really a documentary?

433The Eagle Huntress, a documentary about a Kazakh nomad girl in Mongolia learning to hunt with a golden eagle, divides opinion. It is up for a Bafta award on Sunday night but missed out on an Oscar nomination, possibly because to some viewers it feels staged. Director Otto Bell, however, denies all accusations that the film was scripted, acted or re-enacted.
The story of the Eagle Huntress is simple and heartwarming. Aisholpan Nurgaiv, the rosy-cheeked 13-year-old heroine, is trained by her father to hunt on horseback with a golden eagle – traditionally a male pursuit – and shocks everyone by winning the prestigious eagle-hunters’ competition held annually in the town of Ulgii, in north-western Mongolia.
It has a stirring musical soundtrack, ends with an anthem “You can do anything” sung by pop superstar Sia, and is narrated by another teenage role model, Star Wars actress Daisy Ridley.
One reviewer has described it as a “fairytale documentary” – two words that don’t usually go together – that feels at times “more like fiction than fact”.
Another calls it a “repetitious, half-baked, contrived and crudely staged homily on female empowerment [that] tells us less about Kazakh nomads than Pocahontas does about the Algonquins in 17th Century Virginia”. The film took another culture’s traditions, he goes on, and translated them “into the tired platitudes of a second-rate Disney animation”.
Early publicity for the film did little to inspire confidence, by stating that Aisholpan had fought “an ingrained culture of misogyny to become the first female eagle hunter in 2,000 years of male-dominated history” – a claim that US historian Adrienne Mayor has shown is untrue.
This line was recast to say that Aisholpan is “the first female in 12 generations of her Kazakh family” to be an eagle huntress. But Mayor and others still argue that the film creates a false impression, by failing to mention other Kazakh eagle huntresses, and exaggerating the patriarchal pressures that Aisholpan had to overcome.
“I think eagle hunting would be open to any young woman who would want to pursue it,” Mayor says.
The spark for the film came when director Otto Bell came across photographs of Aisholpan taken by Israeli photographer Asher Svidensky on the BBC News website, in April 2014.
He tracked Aisholpan’s family down (being nomads, they move around) and on the very first day, he says, filmed one of the early scenes in the film, where the girl and her father seize a baby eaglet from its nest. It’s a dramatic moment with Aisholpan climbing down a cliff, her father holding a rope attached to her waist. And it’s one of a number of scenes that some critics have assumed was staged.
Otto Bell rejects this.
“The scene where she takes the baby eagle out of the nest – people are always surprised to know that’s one single take. I filmed it like I would film a live sports event,” he says.
“I did it drawing on my experience in commercials. As far as reconstructing stuff and staging stuff, what you see on the screen is what we got.”
Another scene that sceptics find questionable comes when Aisholpan’s father, Agalai, gets his own father to give his blessing to Aisholpan’s eagle-hunting ambitions. The shot is framed and the camera is rolling when the conversation between the two men takes place outside the tent, and the girl is summoned to receive the old man’s good wishes.
Was it staged? No, says Bell.
“The blessing scene – he said he was going to do this, I just asked him to do it outside. He told me: ‘We need to think about what my father thinks of this.’ The father likes to sit outside anyway, he likes to watch the goats. That was as close [to staging] as we got.”

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