The Eagle Huntress: first among eagles?

Is The Eagle Huntress an inspiring documentary, or a marketing campaign?

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

In early 2014, the photographer Asher Svidensky travelled to Bayan-Ölgii, a province in the far west of Mongolia that shares borders with Russia and China. In this remote, mountainous region, a population of fewer than 100,000 people occupy an area the size of Denmark. Most of those people are Kazakhs, who live in yurts during the summer and buildings during the ferocious, -40°C winters, and who preserve, in their mountainous isolation, the ancient Kazakh tradition of hunting with golden eagles. 

Svidensky wanted a subject that was, as he wrote at the time, “a more interesting story than the usual ‘Even today, there are eagle hunters in Mongolia’”. He began looking for the next generation of young eagle hunters and, following a hunch, discovered Aisholpan, a 13-year-old girl who he thought might be the first eagle huntress in the history of a sport that has existed for millenia. Svidensky had his story, and his photographs became an internet sensation.

Aisholpan’s story was then bought by Otto Bell, a creative director at an advertising agency. Svidensky was brought on as a producer, and filming began on The Eagle Huntress, which charts Aisholpan’s fight to become the first eagle huntress in 12 generations of her family.

From its first scene, in which a rugged Kazakh sacrifices a sheep to his eagle on a mountaintop before setting the majestic predator free, to the last, in which the hunters race through the snow on horseback, this film is visually glorious. An hour and a half of soaring, drone-shot footage of eagles riding the thermals over the vast Mongolian landscape would be worth the cinema ticket in itself. Aisholpan is a charismatic and likeable character, as is her patient and endlessly encouraging father. “Feed this tough child,” he says, after a day scrambling around on a cliff face capturing an eagle for her to train.

Opposing Aisholpan’s dream are the men of the film’s fox-fur-festooned patriarchy (fox aficionado trigger warning: at least one fox does not make it out of this film, and most of the people in it are covered in bits of fox). These men are interviewed separately, in their yurts. They say that women get cold on the mountain, that women should stay at home and get married and not mess with their sport. They are not, however, ever seen stating their views explicitly to Aisholpan. 

The crux of the film is the yearly eagle festival in the city of Ölgii, a day’s ride from the family home, where Aisholpan wants to compete against the greatest in the sport. Again, sections from the interviews with her tent-based detractors are used to ramp up the tension between the young girl and the men who would crush her dreams beneath their fox-leather shoes, but the spectators cheer her on as loudly as anyone else. There is a moment in which one judge could be taking an extra moment to write down her shockingly female name, or he could just be taking it easy with the pen. Only at one point, over lunch, does one grumpy man suggest that women shouldn’t hunt. This stands out because it is the only piece of chauvinism Aisholpan meets face to face.

Is female involvement in hunting really taboo in Kazakh society? Is Aisholpan unique as an eagle huntress? In 2012, Shamil Zhumatov reported for Reuters on a Kazakh eagle hunter called Makpal Abdrazakova, who goes hunting with an eagle when she’s not working as a lawyer. “Elders and respected hunters blessed me some time ago,” said the 25-year-old Makpal, “and I’m still getting their support.” 

Nor was Makpal Abdrazakova the first eagle huntress — not by a long way. In an article on eagle huntresses for Ancient Origins, the historian Adrienne Mayor refers to the Urumqi museum, over the Chinese border in Xinjiang, which holds the bodies of Urumqi people mummified by the exceptionally dry conditions of the Tarim Basin. One is dressed, like Aisholpan, in golden fox furs and wears the unmistakeable glove of an eagle hunter. She died at some point in the third or fourth century BC. Mayor has identified a ring from 425BC as depicting a woman riding a horse, hunting with dogs and an eagle.

In fact, Mayor points out that not only is Aisholpan a very long way from being the first eagle huntress, but she is also a very long way from being the only current eagle huntress. At the Ölgii eagle festival in 2015, there were at least two other young eagle huntresses present. Even if he hadn’t already heard of other female eagle hunters, Svidensky himself went looking for an eagle huntress on the basis, as he wrote, that “70 percent of [Mongolia’s] educated population are women, and most of its education institutes are run by females.”

The sense that a girl-power narrative has been imposed on the film is amplified by Star Wars's Daisy Ridley’s role as narrator and executive producer, loudly stated on every poster and press release: the young, female Jedi of Hollywood provides an easy analogue for marketing Aisholpan. She’s Rey, but in real life.

It’s easy to see why this has been done. Without a story to sell it, this is a film about the fox-hunting techniques of Mongolian Kazakhs, a subject that is not exactly a banker at the box office. Without a hefty extra twist of marketing, the filmmakers might never have been able to bring these people and their beautiful world to a wider audience. This would have been a great loss.

On the other hand, The Eagle Huntress is identified by Sony Pictures Classics as a documentary. The Producers Guild of America has shortlisted the film for its documentary award. Last year’s PGA winner, Amy, went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary. Re-enaction and editorialising are valuable tools for storytelling, but they are not more valuable than the truth. 

By portraying Mongolian Kazakh society as one in which women are largely not free to hunt, The Eagle Huntress does a disservice to the fascinating people that are its subject. It encourages the audience to imagine that the country with all the cameras and drones and cinemas is the more advanced society, and the country being filmed is a regressive patriarchy. A glance at the top Google results for the film – among them a Daily Mail article which dribbles that Daisy Ridley flashes a hint of cleavage in plunging black dress at premiere of her documentary The Eagle Huntress ­– is enough to confirm that the opposite is true. 

Verdict: if you have a 13-year-old, take them to see The Eagle Huntress. Just make sure you ruin it for them afterwards, with facts.

The Eagle Huntress is on general release from Fri 16 December. 

Will Dunn is managing editor of the New Statesman.