1hr 27mins | Rated G
Starring: Daisy Ridley
A few years ago, a series of photographs by a young Israeli traveller named Asher Svidensky set the internet ablaze for a couple of days. The shots showed a young girl, dressed in traditional Mongolian costume, working with an enormous golden eagle against a backdrop of breathtaking mountain-scapes.
I saw the photos at the time. And so too did Otto Bell. Who despite having never made a film before in his life, decided to pour his $80,000 savings into making one about the girl – Aisholpan Nurgaiv – and her remarkable life.
Aisholpan lives in the Altai region of Mongolia. The area is tough, bone-chillingly cold and apparently home to some of the friendliest and warmest-hearted people on earth.
Aisholpan and her family allowed Bell and his three-person crew – as well as several hundred kilos of equipment – into their ger (yurt) for the summer season, during which Aisholpan would be learning from her dad the ancient art of raising and training Mongolian golden eagles as hunting birds.
And the kicker is, Aisholpan is the first girl to ever learn the skill. Eagle hunting has been an entirely male-preserve for literally thousands of years. Aisholpan, if she succeeds, will be the first eagle huntress there has ever been. And to do it, she will have to win over the protests of the assembled grey-hairs, who run the local eagle hunting competition with all the social progressivism of a 1970's small-town RSA.
Seriously. If Disney made this, you'd call it a wee bit contrived. But knowing it's a true story gives The Eagle Huntress an emotional kick that your average "family drama" producer would sell their residuals for.
The film is, of course, almost comically spectacular. You can hardly point a bunch of modern digital cameras at a young woman learning how to train an eagle – while on horseback – against a backdrop of the Mongolian tundra and the towering Altai mountains and not come home with some incredible imagery. But knowing what to shoot and then how to edit it together into a compelling and comprehensible narrative takes a real film-makers' skill. And there is no doubt that Bell – and his vastly experienced editor Pierre Takal, who has worked extensively with Morgan Spurlock – have made a formidably watchable and hugely likeable film.
The Eagle Huntress is a genuinely feel-good and inspirational film. I'll also be quietly surprised if the The Eagle Huntress doesn't take home the documentary Oscar in March.
4 STARS Dominion Post