It’s hard to watch The Eagle Huntress without being charmed by Aisholpan, the documentary’s confident 13-year-old protagonist. In the mountainous region of Mongolia, which feels vast and untouched by time, Aisholpan dreams of following in the footsteps of her father by training an eagle for hunting, becoming what is known as a bürkitshi.
Aisholpan, with her round face and pigtails, is an unlikely candidate for this mythic role, which exists exclusively in her Eurasian homeland — centuries of previous eagle hunters have all been men. Thanks to an admirably self-assured attitude and a nurturing father who doesn’t buy into the sexist myths surrounding eagle hunting (“she shows extraordinary strength regardless of her gender,” he says), the girl realizes her dream.
If the story weren’t true, it would have to be written as a young-adult novel. Sometimes the film pushes this point: There’s intermittent voiceover by Daisy Ridley, of Star Wars reboot girl-power fame, and the original Sia song that plays over the end credits consists mainly of the lyric “you can do anything.”
Shots of Aisholpan training in the hunt and forming a bond with her eagle are expressions of female empowerment (or at least one specific female’s empowerment in one specific place) that speak for themselves. In one of the most poignant images, Aisholpan, having just fed her eagle, paints her nails with lavender polish while the bottle sits next to bloody animal entrails. Girlishness and guts coexist peacefully. The film lends itself to grand pronouncements about feminism or animal rights or some combination of the two, but at heart this is an engaging story about a girl and her eagle.
The Eagle Huntress
Directed by Otto Bell
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens November 2, Landmark Sunshine Cinema