The Eagle Huntress: Just a little too slick

C+ Documentary
Directed by Otto Bell

We all know that documentaries can lie to us far worse than narratives–which we go into knowing they’re false. Otto Bell’s doc, about a Mongolian girl who proves she’s better than any man, entertains and inspires. But it feels false. Parts of the story are difficult to believe. And almost all of it looks staged. I can’t help wondering if it’s really a documentary.

Thirteen-year-old Aisholpan wants to be an eagle hunter, just like her father. That’s fine with him and the rest of the family, despite traditions that insist that only men can go on a hunt.

And no, they’re not hunting eagles. An eagle hunter uses a trained eagle on the hunt the way a western hunter would use a dog. As far as I know, no eagles were harmed making this film. Sheep, rabbits, and foxes weren’t so lucky.

The Eagle Huntress is at its best when it explores an ancient culture that’s also part of our modernized world. Aisholpan’s family lives in a yurt. But they have a radio, factory-made clothing (as well as homemade), and solar panels. They travel on horseback, but also by truck and a motorcycle.

And they hunt with eagles. They steal a fledgling from its nest while the mother is hunting elsewhere. They raise and train the bird, keeping it essentially as an unnamed pet. Then, after eight years of “service,” they set the bird free.

This is one beautiful film to look at. The scenery is magnificent. Considering the location, how could it not be? But the gorgeous aerial photography and crane shots suggest the type of carefully-planned production you can do with actors, but not when you’re trying to capture real life on the fly.

The too-well-shot-for-a-documentary problem isn’t confined to beautiful scenery. A discussion over dinner is covered by multiple setups as it would be in a narrative film. A shot of Aisholpan leaving school and walking to her Dad’s motorcycle appears to have been lined up very carefully.

I’m also not convinced that Aisholpan faced as much sexist backlash as parts of the film suggest (and that the story requires). Daisy Ridley’s narration suggests the chauvinism is serious. And two montages of angry old men show us the conservative resistance. But when Aisholpan turns up at the eagle hunter festival with her bird, she gets nothing worse than a few surprised looks. The judges are open-minded enough to give her first place.

Another issue: I have no trouble believing that a teenaged girl could be a great eagle hunter. But according to the narration, the festival comes only four weeks after she grabbed her eagle out of its mother’s nest. If you can learn this skill and train your bird in a month, why bother with a festival? Anyone could do it.

I enjoyed the movie. Aisholpan makes a likeable protagonist. The culture is strange and fascinating to most westerners (including me). The scene where she steals the eagle is exceptional and suspenseful.

But I didn’t believe it.