Fantasy or documentary in Mongolia?

The Eagle Huntress
Directed by Otto Bell
87 minutes, rated G
2.5 stars

There’s a beautiful sequence in this visually impressive film where a famed Mongolian eagle hunter named Agalai takes his 13-year-old daughter Aisholpan to capture a young eagle on the cliffs near their home.

We already know, courtesy of an unnecessary narration voiced by Daisy Ridley, that these nomads have been capturing and raising eagles for more than 1000 years in the Altai mountains. The images tell us more than the words, with one stunning shot after another of their life on the steppe. Agalai’s father taught him, and both men were champions in the annual eagle festival at Ulgii. Aisholpan is a star student at the school where she and two siblings board five days a week. On weekends, they return to the family’s summer ger to their doting mother, Almagul. Aisholpan wants become the first eagle huntress in Mongolia, a role usually reserved for men. We get a short montage of grizzled old eagle hunters who disapprove.

In the cliff sequence, Agalai and Aisholpan climb above the nest. He then ties his daughter to a rope and lets her down the cliff. We see this from several camera angles, including her own point of view. She is fearless, capturing the terrified eaglet as gently as she can and enfolding it in a rug, to be hauled back up the cliff. At home, her father praises her: you are as brave as any man. Boys and girls should be equal, he says. She beams. The training begins.

That sequence may be the most authentic part of the film, at least in terms of documentary. The image quality is poorer in this section because the English director Otto Bell filmed it on his first visit, with rudimentary equipment. He had seen a stunning photo of Aisholpan, taken in 2013 by Israeli photographer, Asher Svidensky. A successful advertising director, Bell went to Mongolia with a cinematographer friend to find her, with Svidensky’s help. Most of the rest of the film was shot on a later trip, in superb quality with a full quiver of modern kit – including a crane and drone, to get an eagle’s eye view. Almost none of these shots has the authenticity of the cliff sequence – which leads us to the central question. Can we call this documentary, or is it some kind of hybrid, when so much of it is constructed for the camera?

In the prologue, a hunter releases his beloved eagle in the wild, after sacrificing a sheep. It is the custom: after seven years, when old enough to breed, the bird is set free – ‘to continue the circle of life’, says Ridley, the first sign of the film’s secret Disney heart. Bell has denied that anything was staged, while conceding that well, yes, he did restage this bit.

Actually, I don’t see anything wrong with Bell working with his talent to create the most beautiful sequences. All film-makers make choices, whether it be shooting at the golden hour or finding a vehicle that can keep pace with Aisholpan charging across the steppe on her horse.

The problem is Bell’s reshaping of the truth. Folklore researcher Adrienne Mayor of Stanford University has written a critique of the film, based on her extensive research. Mayor says the tradition of women as eagle hunters goes back at least 1000 years. She introduces, with photographs, a number of women doing it in Mongolia now. She says the film-makers knew that, but Bell declined an offer to meet one of them. There was even another young girl hunter at the Uglii festival where Aisholpan first shows her prowess – no sign of her in the film.

To some extent, the film rests on an assumption that’s easy to disprove: if Mongolians have a backward attitude to empowering girls, how come 70 per cent of the students at Mongolian universities are women?

Could it be that what we have here is really a fantasy for western eyes, constructed from western prejudice about ‘primitive’ peoples, who took only what they wanted from Aisholpan and her family, disregarding the rest. In that sense this is not so much a film about girl power: it’s a film about first world power.