While Daisy Ridley is listed as a producer and narrator on The Eagle Huntress, rest assured this story isn't about her popular Star Wars character. Fortunately, the focus is squarely on a real-life inspiration to women the world over, 13-year-old Aisholpan, who lives in the harsh, male-dominated Kazakh society in the Mongolian steppe. But things are changing; the younger generation is emerging with new thoughts on the way things should be. Aisholpan comes from a long lineage of revered golden eagle hunters, and as she aspires to continue that tradition she also becomes a symbol of that change.
Otto Bell's stirring, soulful documentary takes the shape of a nature doc from DisneyEarth or National Geographic, capturing a culture that is fully reliant on the animals and natural resources to survive. Into the forbidding climate of the steppe Aisholpan desires to find and train her own eagle and become a champion huntress. It's impossible not to cheer her on. Aisholpan is a delight; spirited, precocious, strong, and fully aware of the forces marshaled against her. The elders, all old men and eagle hunters themselves, maintain that a woman should not be allowed to train. A woman's place is at home cooking or sewing the fox pelts men bring into warm coats.
Fortunately, Aisholpan's family isn't caught in the same cultural stagnation as her critics. The film is as much about her entire family as it is about her. Without the support of her father, a renowned eagle hunter in his own right, Aisholpan almost certainly wouldn't have gotten anywhere. It's with his help, both smiling broadly the whole way, that she makes the dangerous ascent to capture her eaglet, appropriately a female. A quick montage, necessary to stick to the film's 87-minute runtime, breezes through Aisholpan's bonding exercises with the bird, while her father cheers on nearby. Deft camerawork by cinematographer Simon Niblett thrusts us right into Aisholpan's most dangerous maneuvers, and allowing us to see from her vantage point as her eaglet goes on the hunt. However, there's some confusion later as the cameras try to keep track of hunter and prey, leaving us a little confused until the hunt is over.
While Bell doesn't delve into the issue as much as he should, but the idea of Aisholpan's entry into the Golden Eagle Festival as a publicity stunt is voiced by the elders. There does seem to be a fear by many of them that outside influences are beginning to encroach on everything they've held dear for so long. That may be true, and Aisholpan's accomplishments may signal the end of Kazakh traditions in more ways than just one.But they are her accomplishments nonetheless, and audiences will be too busy applauding for what she achieves to worry about the larger implications on their isolated community.
The Eagle Huntress is a film that will inspire millions of young girls everywhere. The first thing I thought of when it ended was Whale Rider, and how much the two stories are alike. Only Aisholpan isn't living in a fairy tale. She faces real danger, real hatred, and the real concerns all girls her age must deal with. It's a striking, empowering story that will go far in helping others to spread their wings.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5