We saw The Eagle Huntress back in January and though I enjoyed the film there were several things about it that made me circumspect. It purported to be a documentary about a young teenage girl in Mongolia training an eagle, flying it at a festival and taking it on a hunt. The film was ‘presented by’ Daisy Ridley and championed as an example of ‘girl power’. When I began to research the background to the film I realised that it would make an interesting case study for film and media students and I wrote a short piece for the MediaMagazine (a publication for 16-19 year-olds taking A Level Film/Media Studies). Unfortunately MediaMagazine is only accessible online to subscribers and its production cycle is quite long. I feared that the film might disappear from view before the magazine reached schools and colleges.
What I hadn’t realised was just how strongly some of the film’s critics felt about what they were beginning to discover about the film’s production and distribution. After my original posting I began to receive tweets from one of the principal investigators, Meghan Fitz-James in Vancouver, and from others. I found myself re-writing the original post and also publishing some of the comments I received. You can find the post and comments on https://itpworld.wordpress.com/2017/01/09/the-eagle-huntress-uk-mongolia-us-2016/. Since then, Meghan has kept working and kept exposing more aspects of the story. You can access all of her work via her twitter feed @MeghanfjFitz. What she has discovered is another example of a familiar story that has been told about supposedly ‘documentary’ filmmaking going back 100 years or more, but in 2017 is seen in the context of social media and a new level of globalised exploitation of people and cultures.
The background to the controversy is neatly set out in the (English language) clip from France TV above. I’m not surprised by the evidence that has been uncovered but I am amazed by what it is possible to find using social media and internet searches (and a great deal of effort and no little expense). The research also includes visits to Mongolia and direct contact with some of the key figures in the story. Thinking about the ways in which the filmmaker Otto Bell and his various collaborators on the production and subsequent distribution of the film have gone about their business, I’m conscious of the failure of film studies to properly educate audiences about what they are watching.
Film studies has explored how documentaries have been made and has classified the different documentary modes that have developed since the 1920s. We’ve known and accepted for a long time that documentaries may include ‘re-constructions’. It’s not the practice itself that’s an issue, it’s the deception – the attempt to pass something off as ‘real’. In the last twenty to thirty years, two things have happened alongside the development of digital technologies. Firstly, the explosion of forms of ‘reality TV’ and ‘infotainment’ have undermined the sense and purpose of traditional documentary practice. Secondly, the ability to create digital images that appear ‘real’ but have actually been created not through a camera but by photo software has discredited ‘photographic realism’ so that for many, ‘realism’ is no longer an issue.
Alongside this undermining of documentary as a practice that can inform as well as create art is the gradual de-politicisation of film and media education. In this respect, the furore created by the investigators of the production of Eagle Huntress has demonstrated that film studies needs cultural studies and social anthropology to engage with the subjects of this kind of documentary narrative. It is also important to confront the adoption of ‘girlpower’ as a promotional and marketing tool rather than a liberating ideology for young women in different cultures and to recognise the perils of an ‘orientalist’ approach to stories set in parts of Asia that are not regularly represented in western media. What saddens me also is that a public agency such as the British Film Institute should have helped to fund distribution of a film like this without first investigating the story behind it. At least the BBC has carried reports that contest aspects of the film’s story. We all need to be careful as we watch and enjoy films and then sit down to write about them.
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.)