This essay on director Otto Bell's The Eagle Huntress (2016) were written by Kristen Johnson-Salazar, a senior in the Communication Arts Department at UW Madison. The Eagle Huntress will screen on Friday, November 16 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The screening will be introduced by the movie's producer, Stacey Reiss, who will also participate in a post-screening discussion.
By Kristen Johnson-Salazar
The other day, I was talking to my friend on the bus about The Eagle Huntress, and I told her the one scene that really made me sit back and put the documentary in perspective. It was not the beautiful sweeping shots of the Mongolian mountain sides or the slow motion of the golden eagles swooping down with their talons exposed for the attack. It was of our heroine, Aisholpan Nurgaiv, 13 years old, about to embark on her journey to the Gold Eagle Festival. Like her father Rys Nurgaiv, she is dressed in furs and the traditional attire meant for those who claim the title of eagle hunter. They begin their day-long journey to the nearest town by horseback, holding their 15 pound eagle with one hand while the other holds the horse’s reins. Stacey Reiss, University of Wisconsin-Madison Journalism alumna and producer for The Eagle Huntress, also acknowledges this moment in an interview with The Women’s Eye, “I was just sitting there on a stationary horse holding the bird on my arm. Meanwhile, here’s [Aisholpan] a thirteen-year-old girl riding a horse, holding a bird and competing. It was then that I appreciated how challenging it all was.” This scene, along with many other smaller moments, truly brought forth the strength and dedication Aisholpan has for the art and skill of being an eagle huntress.
The Eagle Huntress is a powerful and influential documentary. While our focus is of Aisholpan, navigating through her different identities as a daughter, a sister, a family member, a student, and an eagle huntress, the documentary also touches on themes of family trust and the meaning of tradition. Aisholpan is like most of her friends that we see in the documentary, in that she is expressive, loving, brave, and loves a challenge. Five days of her week are at school, miles away from home, where she lives in the in-school dormitories with her siblings. On the weekends, she returns home and helps her family around and outside the yurt. The training and hunting she undergoes with her father Rys breaks this routine, and leads to one of the most breathtaking scenes of the documentary, when Aisholpan retrieves her eagle for training.
The scene encapsulates the emotional stress and hardship of any eagle hunter. With only a rope knotted around her torso, Aisholpan relies on her communication skills, courage, and luck, to obtain a baby eagle from its nest. Director Otto Bell described the scene stating, “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.” There are only three angles we see: Rys’s perspective, Aisholpan’s GoPro footage, and Bell, far away with a zoom lens, capturing both of them through the process. It’s as exhilarating as it is important to tradition. Every eagle hunter before Aisholpan, her father, her grandfather, and so on and so forth, have gone through the same trials as she did that day. However, unlike previous generations of eagle hunters, it is this time that an audience outside of family, and perhaps interested spectators from afar, get to see the spectacle.
In regard to eagle hunting, tradition to the Kazakh people is not only passing down skills to generations (usually fathers to sons) that help in winning competitions, but a way of understanding family histories and memories. Such is the custom of eagle hunters releasing their trained eagle back into the wild after seven years to make sure that the eagle’s life continues in nature until she flies her last flight. In the documentary, we see the form of tradition take the face of the many eagle hunter elders who dismiss women eagle hunters. It is tradition for fathers to pass down their knowledge to sons, but as the opening monologue spoken by Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) makes clear, “this relationship between man and bird is finite.” An exclusionary tradition that has men as gatekeepers to eagle hunting traditions? It is finite. Countless times in this documentary, Aisholpan breaks free from these repressive boundaries, to not only show that she is just as good as the boys, but often better.
In discussing why she wanted to work on this film in the first place, Stacey Reiss said, “I felt like I would do anything to work on that film. Her story is universal. It’s a story of a father supporting and teaching his daughter, which I can certainly appreciate as the mother of two children.” Some of the greatest documentaries are about specific people, places, things, or ideas, but what makes these documentaries stand out is the exploration of universality in the extraordinary. The emotions, courage, and hopefulness shown by Aisholpan during her tests to be titled an eagle huntress are amazing, and for the majority of us who watch, we could never imagine achieving such feats. However, it is not the moments of her horseback riding and calling to her eagle that define Aisholpan. Rather, it is in the moments with her friends and her siblings, as they draw inspiration from her, that she shows them, and us, a true eagle huntress.