A heart-warming and visually stunning documentary about a 13-year-old girl living with her nomadic family in Mongolia’s harsh Altai mountains, who becomes the first female eagle hunter to compete in the annual Golden Eagle Festival.
The lunar landscapes of Altai are home to Aisholpan’s family, who spend summers in a yurt out on the plains and winters in their house in town. For many generations, the men in her family have hunted for food and fur with the assistance of the golden eagles, taming and training the majestic birds and releasing them back into the wild after seven years of service. Now Aisholpan, fascinated by the eagles since young age, wants to follow in her father and grandfather’s footsteps. Though it’s a traditionally male occupation, Aisholpan has her father’s full support, and early on in the documentary he decides that it’s now time for Aisholpan to find and train an eagle chick of her own.
The natural setting of the film is without a doubt one of its main attractions. The cinematography captures the stark endless vistas and jaw-droppingly beautiful mountain scenery in the corner of the world that’s still mostly inaccessible, in a spectacular fashion. There’s also a crazy sequence in which Aisholpan must climb down a sheer rock face to capture an eagle chick that’s almost ready to leave the nest, before the mama eagle comes home. The casual scenes at Aisholpan’s home and her dorm at school provide a fascinating window into a very different way of life.
As much as I enjoyed the movie, it’s easy to be sceptical about how much of a genuine documentary it really is when at times it follows the heroine’s journey narrative a tad too conveniently and its trajectory feels a tad too scripted. It presents Aisholpan’s undertaking as a revolutionary breaking of the gender barriers, defying the condescending attitude of the elders in the eagle hunting community who sneer at girls for being “too fragile”. While I don’t doubt the existence of prejudice, the portrayal of opposition to Aisholpan at times feels a bit contrived and “movie-like”.
These quibbles aside, the core of the documentary – a young brave girl’s dream, the bond she develops with her mighty feathered hunting companion, and the warm support of Aisholpan’s father who’s immensely proud of his unconventional daughter – can’t help but move. A tomboy who likes pretty hair bows and painting her nails, rosy-cheeked and shyly determined, Aisholpan is a heroine you want to root for (an oddly touching detail for me was Aisholpan’s school uniform, almost exactly the same dress and white apron I wore back in the USSR). You can’t help but grin when she proves the naysayers wrong with her success.