Aisholpan Nurgaiv is a special little girl. Her rosy cheeks and bright, curious eyes are the same as any happy 13-year-old girl from anywhere in the world. Aisholpan, however, isn’t just from anywhere. She is a nomadic Kazakh from Mongolia who spends her weekdays attending school and weekends and time off traveling the gorgeous mountains of Mongolia with her family.
She also happens to be the star of an astonishing new documentary.
From a young age, she wanted to become an eagle hunter like her father, grandfather, and the generations of male family members before them. The catch? That is not something women do. At best, eagle hunting is brutal and unforgiving. Undaunted, Aisholpan wanted to follow her dream. Her father, Rys, believed in his daughter and agreed to train her in the family business.
The first third of the film focuses on her catching an eaglet and training it to hunt. The scene where she scales a sheer cliff with minimal aid from her father to capture the chick in its nest is every bit as tense and thrilling as anything you will see on screen this year. Aisholpan exhibited such grit and unflinching determination that the viewer can’t help but quickly be drawn into her cause.
The film’s second and third acts follow Aisholpan as she competes at the prestigious Golden Eagle Festival and then later embarks on her first hunting expedition. She arrives at the competition unannounced. The unflinching poise she displays in the face of her substantially older, male competition shooting death stares at her is a thing of beauty and grace. And later, the determination she exhibits in the bitter, punishing mountains as she and Rys hunt is tense and awe-inspiring.
The cinematography in this film is insane. It’s a gorgeous reminder that the world is composed of so much more than cracked sidewalks and computer screens. Additionally, the scope and grandeur of the settings can’t help but add to the gravity of Aisholpan’s aspirations. Director of Photography Simon Niblett smashed this one out of the park.
I realize that I am a certain guy of a certain age who isn’t married and doesn’t have any children. And this may be sacrilege, but I don’t find the Disney “princess” movies particularly interesting or helpful to young girls. In fact, I think they are kinda dumb and counterproductive. Many of the most popular ones set empty or unreasonable standards for young minds.
But then there is a movie like The Eagle Huntress. Despite living in the mountains of Mongolia, Aishopan is so impossibly modern that it makes my heart burst. She is a brave trailblazer in her industry and a role model for young girls everywhere. The picture is a positive, affirming story about a father and daughter of which there is a dearth in Hollywood.
Not surprisingly, this film received advanced support from young Hollywood heavyweight Daisy Ridley. She saw an early cut of the film and requested to be involved. Not only is she the executive producer, she is the narrator. Despite her voice appearing in the film for less than five minutes, just attached to the project has drawn major media attention to it.
Additionally, the haunting and uplifting song by Sia, “Angel by the Wings,” is a note-perfect supplement to an impeccable piece of cinema.
At the conclusion of the media screening I attended, I jokingly remarked to the theater director that, “The Eagle Huntress is the Karate Kid of eagle hunting movies.” It was a glib comment. But the more I ruminate on it, the more I’m inclined to stick with that initial observation. It is a well-crafted underdog story that is bursting with heart and determination. The heroine is likable, resilient, and doesn’t blink in the face of adversity.
Inspiration can be found in the unlikeliest places, huh?