The Eagle Huntress (UK-Mongolia-US 2016)

One of many stunning promotional shots for 'The Eagle Huntress'

One of many stunning promotional shots for ‘The Eagle Huntress’

The Eagle Huntress is an extremely engaging film with a wonderful central character, a 13 year-old girl from a traditional Kazakh community located in Western Mongolia near the Altai Mountains. For its UK release, a film first screened at Sundance has received an extra narration from Daisy Ridley, the young star of Star Wars VII – The Force Awakens, the biggest film of 2016. Ridley is now named as Executive Producer of The Eagle Huntress and helped to promote the release with a strong emphasis on the concept of ‘girl power’. The BFI also supported the release by the small independent distributor Altitude, which opened the film on just 24 screens, subsequently widened to 50. After three weekends over the Christmas period the UK box office total was just £160,000. In the US, however, after 9 weeks, and on only 122 screens at most, it has made $2.3 million. In the US, Sony Classics is the distributor and the extra muscle from a studio probably means it got into more large cinemas. I suspect that the film will have ‘legs’ in the UK and a healthy future on DVD and online. We watched it at HOME Manchester on a Saturday afternoon with a healthy audience who certainly seemed to enjoy the film – as we did too.

So far, so good. But then I started to reflect on what I’d seen and a few question marks started to appear. I went into the screening having read some of the material in the Guardian and, I think, on BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme. I didn’t have any ‘agenda’ as such going in, but I do have a general apprehension about what might be termed ‘National Geographic‘-type films – those mixing wildlife and social anthropology and offering beautiful ‘exotic’ landscapes etc. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film in which we meet Aisholpan and her father Rys Nurgaiv. She wants to become an ‘eagle hunter’. Traditionally Rys would have trained his son, but the young man has joined the army. Aisholpan has been around eagles all her life. Her father has been a successful eagle hunter and he keeps a bird for seven years in order to hunt foxes and small mammals in the mountains. Hunting also gives him social status since the Eagle Hunt Festival is now a major tourist attraction in the town of Ölgii with its significant Kazakh diaspora community. He has no objection to training his daughter and his wife is equally supportive. The film comprises three main sections. Aisholpan finds a 3 month-old eaglet (females are preferred as they are bigger than males), successfully takes it from the nest and trains it; her father trains Aisholpan so she can take part in the festival and finally she goes with her father to hunt with her eagle in the winter to ‘prove’ she is a hunter. Interspersed between these sequences we see glimpses of Aisholpan’s life at home and at school (she’s a weekly boarder at school – her father collects her at weekends).

Aishoplan studies hard in school . . .

Aisholpan studies hard in school . . . (photo: Asher Svidensky)

The film is described as a documentary and in some ways it resembles a superior reality TV programme with extra wildlife footage (Simon Niblett is an experienced wildlife cinematographer, director Otto Bell’s background is in corporate documentaries for multinational companies – he’s a Brit working out of New York). My two concerns about the film are that little information is given to us about the background of the community at its centre and, secondly, everything just seems to go so well. The description I gave in the first paragraph above came from my later research into Kazakh traditions and the diaspora in Mongolia – nothing was said in the film.  In terms of the ‘ease’ of Aisholpan’s progress, in these kinds of narratives something usually ‘gets in the way’ of the hero – there are obstacles to overcome. Aisholpan seems to succeed almost immediately with everything she attempts. Her strong personality probably prevents us from noticing this smooth progress – we are happy for her, she deserves success. But doubts creep in. We wonder if perhaps the filmmaker has manipulated reality a little too much? But perhaps the crucial factor in increasing our worries is the gender equality question. The film seems intent on emphasising that Aisholpan is the first young woman to become an eagle hunter and that she faces stiff opposition. But the only ‘evidence’ of this is a montage of ‘grumpy old men’ who say “It’s not right” and similar. Yet everyone else – her father and mother, her grandfather, the judges at the Eagle Hunt Festival competition – supports her. What is going on?

Is the film a manipulation of the reality of gender roles in this Kazakh community?

When I started to read reviews and commentaries, I soon came across claims and counter-claims. The Canadian writer Meghan Fitz-James has been the most vociferous critic of the film’s ‘manipulation’ of the original story and you can read a piece by her here in which she also quotes from an article by Adrienne Mayor of Stanford University. (Fitz-James also adds a posting in which she explains how attempts were made to take down her original posting.) Adrienne Mayor explains how eagle-hunting has been carried out by the nomadic peoples of Central Asia for thousands of years:

Male bürkitshi [eagle falconers] are certainly more common than females today, although eagle hunting has always been open to interested girls. Archaeology suggests that eagle huntresses were probably more common in ancient times. (Mayor 2016)

Mayor also argues that far from a conservative society with fixed gender roles, these nomadic peoples developed a form of gender equality because men, women and children had to learn how to survive in such a harsh environment. Reading these papers, I remembered that the origins of the film were in a project undertaken by an Israeli photographer and documentary-maker Asher Svidensky. Director Otto Bell saw one of Svidensky’s original photos and decided he wanted to make a film. The two got together and Bell shot the scenes of capturing the eaglet. I think I remember an interview in which Bell said that his money ran out and he had to seek further backing. At this point I think he turned for advice to Morgan Spurlock the director of successful box office docs such as Supersize Me (US 2004). Spurlock eventually became one of the Executive Producers on The Eagle Huntress and on his website morganspurlock.com there is this description of the film:

. . . this film not only explores the life of a young girl striving to pursue her passion and break down gender barriers in a very traditional culture . . .

Whatever Otto Bell learned about selling his film, it certainly seems like it was based on a false premise. The more the gainsayers dig into this, the more obvious the manipulation becomes. How much the scenes (and the dialogue) were scripted doesn’t really matter, though I think the film would be improved by a little more ‘reality’. I don’t want to take anything away from Aisholpan or her story and I’m all in favour of inspiring young women with heroes like this young Kazakh girl. But it is unfortunate to say the least that the filmmakers have retained the false message about gender in Kazakh society and that they still call the film a documentary. The music too seems chosen to emphasise the appeal to the target audience but doesn’t seem to match the cultural context (I know I’m too old to appreciate the music!).

The whole story of the film’s production and distribution would make an excellent case study for Film Studies and Media Studies students in schools and FE/HE exploring what ‘documentary’ now means. Here is the official (US) trailer, note the steer in the narration:

(This post has been amended a couple of times, as I’ve found out more.)

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6 comments

  1. John Hall

    I saw this as yet another free preview, enjoyed it immensely but also immediately had misgivings like the ones you describe when the thirteen-year old first time competitor (of either sex) won the prestigious local competition at the first time of asking. This failure to believe was only underscored by the techn track that came on over the credits saying “girl you can do anything”. Enjoyable, as I said, but I also felt a bit suckered.

  2. gaunletthrower

    I am SO thankful for this article on multiple levels, not the least of which it links to my opinion essay which took 7 months to research…The essay contains a deeper link into my Google Plus essay which has links to back everything I say ( the Google Plus essay is updated up to November 10th in the update section).

    What the writer may not know is that my opinion essay was published on August 24th by The UB Post and was censored on October 24th at the bullying request of the filmmaker’s people when they contacted Mongolia News who own The UB Post! I was not happy. The details about the censorship are viewable in my public Facebook post on the matter dated October 25th and that it was at the request of the filmmaker’s people is 100% confirmable should the press ever take an interest in that. So what readers are actually reading the re-post of it on Mongolia Live made within 48 hours of the censorship.

    You will have to read the op essay first to read what I say next in order to have the proper context and information.

    From August 24 on the filmmaker is slowly but surely replacing his media messaging. After August the filmmaker started working really hard to let people know how he spent his life savings to make the film and went into debt…but that has absolutely no relevance to the fact that he did not ensure informed consent when he presented the family with the 1USD contract…And the filmmaker makes absolutely no mention that the contract issue was exposed on TV in Mongolia to over 18,000 viewers in 2014 (viewable online). Setting payment to the family aside (which is only expected) the filmmaker has never explained the reason for his clearly exploitative act.

    Please know (breaking news) that Dinara Assanova of Women of Kazakhstan has just put together an exhibit on eagle huntresses as a “civic response” to curb the cultural misinterpretation and misrepresentation encouraged – certainly not discouraged- by the filmmaker and his team via the media marketing for the film over time and by some reviewers of the film.

    Of course there are always naysaying people in ANY culture for ANY activity that is dominated by one gender over another but for the labels of “sexist”, “chauvinist”, “misogynist” etc. to be bandied about as descriptions of all of the men of culture as a whole is downright wrong. The underpinning thinking seems to be that the culture is somehow in need of a feminist overhaul to rescue it from itself and this is truly disrespectful assumption made and communicated by some reviewers. The filmmaker has done nothing to correct or discourage any of this labelling. He has still not recalled media where he and his team have made false advertising claims that Asiholpan is the first in 2000 years…And Sony apparently do not care as they have not pursued this either. Although I have heard they have done other things…

    The judgements made by some reviewers are so casually made that it was like they decided not to spend one extra minute before writing to think independently and critically about what the practical needs and realities have been over the centuries for the remotely located families that have a member or members go off hunting. Ie. Who takes care of the kids, keeps the fires burning in -40 winters, and keeps everyone fed? Are there daycares around every corner? Is there really something inherently wrong with role-based indigenous culture in having gender roles? Have any prior eagle huntresses existed? And what were the cultural circumstances over time? Such is the power of the media platform for documentary makers who become ipso facto “experts” and who reviewers trust implicitly to have done their research and then it is just a matter of joining the chorus. Shame.

    And do not even get me started on what I know about the consultan(t)cy….ahem…used…cough, cough….by Otto Bell. DOUBLE SHAME.

    This article is also worth a read https://t.co/gTHTHSOzyF is the only other truly researched film reviewer article out there aside from this one… and the reviewer poses an excellent question. My answer will be obvious to readers of my work.

    Everyone would have benefit from knowing that Asher Svidesnky told different stories to BBC than he did on TV Mongolia Part 1 and TedXUB Heroes (his blog description also lacks detail). Svidensky actively sought a girl of “roughly the right age” for his “art mixed with documentary project” envisioning what HE would like to see in 5-10 years. Yet the Director, Otto Bell, says that Svidensky “stumbled upon” an eagle huntress…over and over again. Aisholpan had not yet asked her father to train her, however, when photographed. So the start of her engagement was not without outside influences. Svidensky worked closely with Otto Bell from the time of the BBC release of the photos and story. There is no way Otto Bell cannot know what actually led up to filming in detail. What is particularly sad is that it appears the filmmaker ‘requires’ the family themselves to not talk about the art project idea as they also simply say Aisholpan was photographed and later filmed and nothing about the approach or what I would call recruitment process by Svidensky. In other words the filmmaker wants everyone to think that the girl’s engagement was completely natural and naturally-timed without influences…even though the TV Mongolia Part 1 interview and TedXUB talk clearly show otherwise.

    Please follow me on Twitter at MeghanfjFitz . I know FAR more than I can say or write at this time to protect confidentiality of other people. I have done my best to supply information to the family via public FB posts to Aisholpan’s Facebook page so that the family can be informed to make their decisions. I have done that publicly to skirt censorship or intervention.

    There is no way, in my opinion, that this documentary should be in the running at the Oscars where it is now short listed…based on ethics alone. It should never have passed muster as a documentary at Sundance..They did not vet for level of research or for anything shifty about the filmmaking process.

    Otto Bell has recently stated that the film really belongs to Aisholpan. I can get behind that idea completely. And not just as a cute compliment but as a practical, concrete imperative.

    • Roy Stafford

      Thank you for pointing me towards the New Statesman review which is an excellent piece of journalism. You clearly have your own specific reasons for wanting to expose the deceits in the presentation of this story. Sadly this is only one example of what is happening on a wider scale in relation to ideas about ‘documentary’. It isn’t a new problem – similar kinds of issues arose with the documentary films produced by Robert Flaherty in the 1920s. I don’t know how things are in Canada, but in the UK media education is taking a bit of a hit at the moment and my main concern is that audiences are less likely to fully appreciate what the concept of a ‘documentary’ film might mean. The other issue is that debates about gender representations have become divorced from broader discussions about the way media texts produce meaning. I have no faith in the Oscar committees making sensible decisions – but I agree that it is odd that a film like this should be accepted in the documentary category.

      • gaunletthrower

        All true. I thank you for your article and for your insight. I am aware about these things and do not get my hopes up…But I also do not shut up as you can tell …so if there were a way to let people know about the publish date and censor information I gave above it would help people understand just how much the filmmaker/his people want to avoid answering to the questions that are gemerated from my op essay. I am not sure if your piece is editable to include that information anywhere?

        I also wonder where you noticed the work of mine and Adrienne’s exactly? Out of curiosity.

        Overall I believe it is matter of exploitation from start to finish and on multiple levels. I do not say that lightly. People can agree to their exploitation and noone would blame them for that because money but exploiting that very fact is an issue. I wish I could unlearn and unhear what I have heard. Such a benign and pretty film on the surface. I am hoping that the few people in the community themselves who have reached out to me and told me stuff will both continue to support Aisholpan while at the same time open up and tell what the filmmaking involved etc.

      • Roy Stafford

        I learned of your article and Adrienne’s from the first ‘external review’ listed on IMDB, ‘The Flick Philosopher’

        There is a direct link in my posting to your article but I’ll try to make it more visible (and see if I can add something about the censorship). Good luck with your ongoing campaign.

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