Did you know that “the relationship between man and bird is finite?” Well, according to the Mongolian eagle-hunting world this is fact. This week I watched “The Eagle Huntress,” a documentary directed by Otto Bell about a 13-year-old Mongolian girl who courageously becomes the first and youngest woman eagle hunter. You may be thinking that is an incredibly obscure and possibly pretentious topic for a documentary—however, I can assure you that this was the purest movie I have ever seen. I watched it with my friend Noa Mendoza ’20 and at one point it had us crying, and then at another celebrating and still at others heckling the screen with anger. The documentary had it all—intensity, heartbreak, triumph and an overwhelming sweetness.
But first, what is an eagle hunter? In Mongolian culture, it is common for the patriarch of the family to capture an eagle and make it his personal hunting assistant. The hunter rides on a horse with his eagle perched on his arm and then when he spots a fox, he issues a special call or howl that sounds like “aoogahh.” The eagle then goes in for the kill and retrieves the fox for the hunter. (I am not making this up. This really happens, and it is outstanding to watch.)
In return for the good work, the eagle is cared for by the hunter, fed and kept warm during the winter months. However, as the movie declares in its opening lines, the relationship between the eagle and hunter is finite, and typically after seven years, the hunter will release his eagle and capture a new one. It is a beautiful interdependent relationship with a tinge of heartbreak at the end.
The movie begins with the synopsis of this delicate relationship as the camera surveys a landscape of the vast and barren Mongolian mountains and plains.
Then we meet the story’s protagonist, 13-year-old Aisholpan. She is humble. She is wise. She is strong. She’s better than you were as a 13-year-old. Noa and I instantly fell in love with her. She is the quintessential modern-day Mulan, and she’s going to stop at nothing to be an eagle hunter like her father.
Therein lies the main tension of the documentary. The eagle hunter role is traditionally filled by the man of the house. In Aisholpan’s case, 12 generations of fathers and sons have passed down this tradition of eagle hunting. Not only must Aisholpan elude these gendered standards, but on top of that, as the movie depicts, the elder eagle hunters of the community are vocal about a woman’s place at home. They are adamant about the fact that women should not eagle hunt because they either “get tired easily” or “aren’t strong enough.”
None of this matters, however, to young Aisholpan. The movie traces her beginnings as an eagle huntress from her treacherous capture of her first eaglet to her fist kill of a fox. The climax of the movie centers around the annual eagle hunting competition. Aisholpan is the youngest and only female participant. I won’t give away what happens at the competition, but I’ll just say it left us shouting, “Yass queen!”
It is a story of defying tradition and being courageous in the face of naysayers, intermixed with some tender familial love and support. With that said, one of the best qualities of the movie is the sweet relationship Aisholpan shares with her father. Her father trains her and gives her his sacred blessing to become an eagle huntress, Aisholpan looks up to her father and yearns to be as competent of an eagle hunter as him. There are even moments where her father defends Aisholpan as opponents comment on her youth and gender. This pure relationship made the movie incredibly lovable and brought tears to our eyes.
The documentary also shed light on Mongolian culture, which is relatively unknown to outside audiences. It depicts the small, isolated town in which Aisholpan lives and exposed the modest but happy lives the family members lead. Because the family lives in such close quarters in a small community, it becomes obvious how close family members and villagers are to each other. This aspect not only added to the intensity of Aisholpan’s endeavor since it accentuated her backlash, but also heightened her familial support. However, watching her courage and family support prevail colored the movie’s happy tone.
Another aspect of the culture that the movie highlighted was the gender roles of family members. Women are expected to stay at home, raise children and cook, while men are expected to hunt for their families. In expressing these standards, some of the village elders who were interviewed expressed a negative view of women, painting them as inherently weaker than men.
The documentary does a good job of countering this subtle misogyny, however, by illuminating Aisholpan’s obvious strength and how unstoppable she is. The ending message is that with hard work and some natural talent, anyone can be an eagle hunter.
Overall, I have no criticisms of this movie— it is all: heartwarming and gut-wrenching, intense yet light-hearted and overall adorable. It deserves 12 out of five stars, three Oscars, five Golden Globes and a Grammy. Go rent it on Amazon right now and you’ll get to experience the beauty of this documentary.