“Every dog has its day.” Well, not in this isolated Kazakh tribe, situated in Northwest Mongolia. If you happen to reach that mountain, you will realise that “Every eagle has its day”, for fierce eagles are the wings of this Kazakh people. They are a semi-nomadic minority that have roamed the mountains and valleys of western Mongolia with their herds since the 19th century. They rely on their clan and herds, believing in pre-Islamic cults of the sky, their ancestors, fire and the supernatural forces of good and evil spirits. For them, gender roles are set in stone. Women milk cows, cook and clean, while men practice falconry. But a 13-year-old girl wants to break the rules. Aisholpan is determined to compete in the all-male Golden Eagle Festival as the first eagle huntress.
The Eagle Huntress is an extraordinary story of gender challenges and stratification, with a happy ending. Much has been said and published about women’s rights movements, including changes in legislation and court cases pushed by women’s organisations. Now we see women in literally thousands of occupations which would have been almost unthinkable just one generation ago: they are dentists, bus drivers, vets, airline pilots, just to name a few. Usually, though, those movements were held in countries in which education leads to an acquisition of a profession, which was previously a man’s world. This documentary explores uncharted territory: Aisholpan subverts the role of young women in a Mongolian tribe.
The photography is stunning. The director explains: “I wanted to document the ‘Future Generation’ – young kids who take their first steps in learning the hunting skills, kids who hold the tradition’s future in their bare hands.” When he finally found Aisholpan, he noticed she was perfect. “She was fearlessly carrying the eagle on her hand and caressing it somewhat joyfully.”
Otto Bell shot the film over a 12-month period, enabling him to portray every single step of the training, as well as the habits of a nomadic civilisation. Horses take part in the training too. The Kazakh people love their horses, they use them both for agriculture and leisure. Aisholpan and her dad climb a mountain and ride together while training. They live in ‘yurts’ (round tents), which they can carry easily from one place to the next.
As a daughter of an experienced eagle hunter, Aisholpan learnt the art of hunting from her father. Parents play a decisive role in shaping up the personality of heroes and heroines. Aisholpan’s family supports her all the way to victory. They had to cope with other tribe leaders and eagle hunters who constantly slammed her off. Aisholpan’s father could have rejected his own daughter and simply blamed his wife for only giving him daughters. In that case, Aisholpan could become a Mongolian Sylvia Plath, and repeat the poet’s words: “Being born a woman is my awful tragedy“. Instead, she proudly combs her gorgeous hair, dons a fancy hat and polishes her nails. She is ready for the big day of the Golden Eagle Festival.
The Eagle Huntress is in cinemas from Friday 16th December.
Watch the film trailer right here: