Thirteen-year-old Aisholpan Nurgaiv is not the first female eagle hunter in the 2,000-year history of the Kazakh culture, as the documentary The Eagle Huntress suggests. [See updated note below.] (Only four years ago, Reuters profiled female eagle hunter Makpal Abdrazakova for International Women’s Day.) And it seems that, while hunting with eagles is a male-dominated pursuit, girls and women are not dissuaded from participating, and, indeed, Kazakh culture appears to be a lot more egalitarian than the movie implies, with its montage of frowny-faced old men seemingly reacting with scorn and disapproval to Aisholpan’s desire to jump feet-first into the sport (see “The Eagle Huntress Ancient Traditions and New Generations” by Stanford University professor Adrienne Mayor). In fact, there seems to be a host of issues with The Eagle Huntress: factual, with regards to how truly representative it is of Kazakh culture, and ethical, in how its subjects were treated by filmmaker Otto Bell and in whether its warping of reality is so great that it can no longer be accurately deemed a documentary (Canadian Meghan Fitz-James has investigated and reported on the film’s problems).
I was not aware of all of these things when I went into the film at London Film Festival a month ago, and I loved the movie: It’s gorgeously shot amongst the rugged and beautiful landscapes of Mongolia, which aren’t quite like anyplace else on the planet. It’s hugely inspiring on a big cultural level, depicting how a custom that once was life-sustaining is not only surviving but thriving in the modern world that may not necessarily have the same practical use for it, and on a personal level, depicting the stick-to-it-iveness that a challenging sport requires to master. And Aisholpan is absolutely badass, an awesome kid full of personality and presence. Just by being herself, she defies expectations and stereotypes of people from traditional cultures: hers is nomadic, which may seem out of step with the 21st century, but she is at once both totally contemporary and a standard bearer for all the wonderfully unique and venerable qualities of her people and her society. Oh, and Daisy Ridley brings an commanding gravitas as narrator, which is rather unexpected in someone so young. A spiritual connection with Ridley’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens character is not at all unwarranted: it is not without good cause that we should see Aisholpan as a real-life analog to Rey and Katniss and the few other female characters who have been allowed to be fully human onscreen recently. All the little (and big) girls who loved Rey and Katniss will definitely love Aisholpan, as they should. (And there’s no reason why little boys shouldn’t love Aisholpan, too.)
The thing is, though, that all of that would have still been true if The Eagle Hunter acknowledged that Aisholpan wasn’t quite as singularly unusual as depicted. The sequence in which Aisholpan, with her father’s help, steals a juvenile eagle (as is the custom) from its nest on the side of a cliff in order that she may train it would have been just as breathtaking if we knew that she wasn’t the first teenage girl to attempt such a feat. Seeing anybody doing this would be incredible. Also too: There is no question that Aisholpan was the first girl or woman to compete at the Golden Eagle Festival, an annual event outside the town of Ulgii (which only debuted in 1999, though the film doesn’t mention that and leaves us to infer that it is an ancient custom). This would have been more than enough to fuel the strong running motif of go-girl female-empowerment coursing under Bell’s presentation of Aisholpan’s story. And such a motif is not a bad thing: you, dear reader, know how often I have complained about the lack of female protagonists onscreen, and the lack of stories about girls and women overcoming the very real obstacles thrown up against us. But the challenges that girls and women face are real enough without having to invent obstacles! And there would also be very real — and very potent — power in a story about a traditional culture that does not hold girls and women back from reaching their full potential, if that is indeed the case with Kazakh nomads. Imagine how staggering it would be to say, with the authority of fact, that traditional does not automatically equate to women-hating.
I can’t pretend to imagine what filmmaker Bell, making his feature debut, was thinking in twisting Aisholpan’s story as he does, or whether it results from an active desire to tell a different story than reality would tell or if it’s simply a matter of poor or sloppy research. Whatever the case, and whatever problems with inauthenticity The Eagle Huntress may have, it is still a wonderful film, and Aisholpan is a wonderful role model for kids of any gender to cheer.
viewed during the 60th BFI London Film Festival
UPDATE 11.05.16: For an alternate view on the Kazakh attitude toward women eagle hunters, see “The Internet May Love Eagle Huntresses, but the Eagle Hunters Certainly Don’t” by Dennis Keen.
Google Analytics tells me that I have readers in Mongolia and Kazakhstan. I’d love to hear from people with intimate familiarity with the Kazakh culture about just how egalitarian, or not, it is.
UPDATE 11.09.16: I’ve now seen the theatrical version of the film, and it no longer suggests that Aisholpan is the first female eagle hunter in the 2,000-year history of the Kazakh culture, a quote that I made specific note of during my LFF screening of the film. So it would seem that the narration has been adjusted to acknowledge some of the criticisms of the film.