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).
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.)
The first of two Egyptian films in my selection, In the Last Days of the City proved to be fascinating – perhaps not the easiest start to my festival viewing but certainly a film I’ve thought about a lot since. Produced, written and directed by Tamer El Said, it’s an independent film that has taken several years to make and now emerges as an almost documentary record of a particular district of Cairo before the Arab Spring of 2011. In the Q&A after the screening, the director and his lead actor Khalid Abdalla referred to a film that was “made with foresight” and “edited in hindsight” – preparations began in 2009 with shooting spread over 30 months and a long period of editing.
Khalid (the actor uses his own name) is a thirty-something filmmaker in Cairo attempting to complete a film. It wasn’t clear to me exactly what kind of film it is intended to be, but it includes footage of people he knows and it is inspired by material sent to him by filmmaker friends who are in Baghdad, Berlin and Beirut. At one point he meets these friends in Cairo. At other times he finds himself looking around the city and coming across isolated incidents – police beating demonstrators, a man assaulting a woman. At these moments we feel a sense of unease at Khalid’s seeming voyeurism.
The film draws on the repertoire of films about filmmaking. Khalid has several problems. He falls out with the editor who is trying to complete post production in his flat. Khalid is also being forced out of the flat and must pack his books and household goods and search for a new place to live, not helped by a ‘useless’ estate agent. One of his subjects for his film is his ex-girlfriend who seems increasingly reluctant to help him out. Khalid’s mother is in hospital and he tries to see her on a regular basis.
The filmmaking process for Tamer El Said began with the intent to create a fiction and then slid into reality. The director used his own flat as one of the film’s locations and did then find himself forced to move. The scenes on the street did pick up the tension in Cairo before 2011. The status of the film now before us is uncertain, fiction bleeds into reality and vice versa. What is most striking are the formal properties of the filmic image. So, with an image on the computer screen, the camera zooms in and we are taken into the ‘fictional world’ on screen – but this is revealed to be the ‘real world’ of Khalid’s friends. The same can happen in reverse of course. ‘What is real?’ is an age-old question in cinema. Here though it takes on a new urgency as major changes are taking place in Egyptian society. Two observations are important. First, we are seeing only a small part of the city from a middle-class perspective (i.e. not necessarily wealthy but educated/artistic/cultured) and secondly the beautifully composed images by Bassem Fayad seem to convey the sadness of a city approaching turmoil implied by the title. This is certainly a festival film that will be a difficult sell for cinema distribution. It’s important though that this kind of Egyptian independent film gets seen internationally and broadens the perspective offered by different forms of Egyptian popular cinema.
La Fémis is the state film school in Paris once known as IDHEC. Every year several hundred applicants for new places are put through a competitive entrance exam which can last for three months and three rounds of ‘analysis’ (in this case of a clip from a Kurosawa Kiyoshi film), projects and interviews. Claire Simon’s documentary follows one cohort through all three phases and finishes with the group photograph celebrating the formal acceptance of the small group of successful applicants (around 40?). Simon herself is a graduate of the school and she follows the individual candidates objectively – this isn’t like reality TV.
La Fémis works on the principle that industry personnel are responsible for selecting each year’s new intake using an agreed set of guidelines and as we might expect, the most gripping parts of the documentary are arguably those in which we see these practitioners arguing among themselves about who should be accepted.
It’s very difficult for me to know how this film might be received by audiences with little sense of the issues at stake in an exercise like this. I’ve spent a large chunk of my working life thinking about examining and assessing students and I was fascinated by this insight. All the interview panels and assessors took their roles seriously – but often ended up with contradictory conclusions about who was a suitable applicant to recommend. In the clip below, disagreement about a candidate in Round 2 (the project) hinges on if it matters that he is ‘crazy’ – and someone wonders how a Cronenberg or a Dreyer would have got on in a competition like this:
La Fémis takes candidates for distinct specialist roles such as director, screenwriter, cinematographer etc. I was also pleased to see that there is now an intake of students who want to specialise in film distribution – and we see some being interviewed by cinema owners and distributors. Later, in the Q & A after the screening, we heard that La Fémis also now takes students from ‘diverse’ backgrounds for one-year courses t enable them to network and make contacts with industry personnel. This sounds like a progressive move, but I hope that they will also increase the number of students from diverse backgrounds for the standard four-year course. In relation to this Claire Simon made an important point in the Q & A when she said that she realised, in the edit suite, that only students from certain backgrounds were able to talk about themselves in interviews in the ways expected by the applications procedures. This puts pressure on the practitioners on interview panels who have to look for the signs of an applicant who could develop these skills even if they don’t have them at the moment. It might also suggest that the system needs tweaking.
I’m not sure what the possibility of seeing this film in the UK will be but if you get the chance I would heartily recommend it. I was impressed by the industry personnel taking part in the selection process. They were actively seeking to select students who might benefit from the course. Some were more progressive than others but all had a very realistic view of the opportunities and were genuinely trying to help candidates whilst also trying to maintain standards – and protecting their colleagues from candidates who might be difficult to work with and not productive. It isn’t an easy task. I don’t know how La Fémis compares to film schools elsewhere but this film confirmed my view of French cinema as healthy in the current climate.
Sembène! is the new documentary about the great Senegalese director, Sembène Ousmane. It first showed in the UK at last year’s London Film Festival, but is now getting a limited UK release courtesy of the Africa in Motion Festival, based in Scotland. Screenings are listed on the film’s website and they begin in Edinburgh at the Filmhouse on Thurs October 6th followed by Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle on the 7th, HOME, Manchester on the 8th, Hyde Park, Leeds on the 9th, Showroom, Sheffield on the 10th and Broadway, Nottingham on the 11th. Each screening is accompanied by a personal appearance by the film’s co-director Samba Gadjigo. He then gets a couple of days rest before his London appearances. The website gets a little surreal at this point since he is listed as ‘in attendance’ at both Picturehouse Central and Brixton Ritzy at the same time on Friday October 14th. Perhaps there will be a satellite link between the two cinemas or he will introduce the film in the West End then get the tube to Brixton? Best check the cinemas for the details.
I’d like to urge you to see this wonderful documentary. If you know Sembène’s work you’ll discover some fascinating insights into his background and his life behind the camera. If you don’t know his films and aren’t aware of why he is such a revered figure, then this is an excellent introduction. His films themselves use great music and the documentary adds some interesting graphics. These documentary screenings are, in most of the cinemas, part of the BFI-sponsored mini-tour Rebel With a Camera: The Cinema of Ousmane Sembène which comprises the documentary plus three key films from Sembène’s career, Black Girl (La Noire de, Senegal-France 1966), Xala (Senegal 1974) and Moolaadé (Senegal-Burkina Faso-Tunisia-Cameroon-Morocco 2004). These films are showing on various dates at different cinemas, so best to check with the cinema nearest you.
I feel privileged to be able to chair the Q&A at HOME in Manchester which is screening all four films during October – dates here. Sembène has been called ‘The Father of African Cinema‘ and I’ve written a brief survey of his work here. The blog post dates from 2008 and I’ll be updating it when I can.
Here’s the trailer for Sembène! – I hope you can get to see it: