With our national headlines currently stuck in a rather toxic cycle, stories that value compassion, empathy, and the power of connection in the face of seemingly insurmountable barriers have special value. For that reason, The Eagle Huntress, the diligently crafted and family-friendly documentary narrated by Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley, is a particularly welcome arrival.
With a patient gaze grounded in respect and adoration for his subject, director Otto Bell delicately observes the rousing tale of 13-year-old Aisholpan, a young girl who bucks the ancient, male-dominated tradition of eagle hunting in Mongolia. She descends from a long line of avian masters — Kazakh men who capture, train, and hunt with the majestic creatures for utility and sport, upholding cultural mores of their ancestors. As Aisholpan comes of age, she faces stiff opposition from local elders, who believe a woman’s place is hovering above a stove, not combing the frigid Altai countryside for fox meat. Bell’s camera drinks up every last bit of determined intensity splashed across Aisholpan’s face as she enters an all-male hunting competition, quietly shattering a glass ceiling as she brings a community together and stifles the patriarchy moving to thwart her lofty ambitions.
The Eagle Huntress features a feminist message that’s easy to get behind and an inherently charismatic subject who’s easy to root for, so it’s difficult to separate one’s affection for the symbolic and societal importance of Aisholpan’s journey from the film’s merits as a documentary. The weight of the directorial hand is often obvious, leaving some scenes with an unnaturally stagy feeling. But the movie’s restrained second half stuns, ranking as one of the most magical stretches of nonfiction filmmaking in recent years. B