The Eagle Huntress: The Force Sleepwalks, by David Bax
From the opening bit of narration—despite the voice being that of bona fide movie star Daisy Ridley—the prevailing feel of Otto Bell’s The Eagle Huntress is an amateurish one. The quick and sloppy cuts in these establishing moments do little to convey the grandeur and sweep of the Mongolian mountain setting. Meanwhile, the vocabulary of the narration itself is limited and clunky; Ridley will later observe of life in the snowy steppe, “They get cold.” By the movie’s end, you will likely have experienced a modicum of uplift and/or inspiration but no more than you would get from a quick reading of the film’s description.
Aisholpan is a thirteen-year-old girl in an agrarian, nomadic community in which the men hunt with the use of trained eagles. Her gender has prescribed for her a life of domestic duties but her desire is to learn the way of eagle hunting from her father, Nurgaiv. He is more than happy to train and help her follow her passion but, frustratingly, many in their society feel differently.
Experienced nature cinematographer Simon Niblett does his best to elevate the material but it seems that somewhere in the DI process, a chunky, digital cheapness infected some of the shots that pan across the countryside. Add that to the generic world music score by Jeff Peters and The Eagle Huntress develops the feel of one of those short documentaries you stand around watching a couple minutes of in a history museum before wandering on to the next exhibit.
When Bell dispenses with adornments, though, and relies on the naked power of truth, The Eagle Huntress comes to life. The standout in this regard is the sequence in which Aisholpan, having progressed in her training with her father’s eagle, must capture a young bird of her own. The bond between eagle hunter and eagle is a strong one but it starts with a raw and dangerous violation. Once the mother bird has left to gather food, Aisholpan must scale the side of a cliff to a precariously balanced nest, grab a terrified, squawking eaglet, stuff it in a bag and bind its legs. It’s a harrowing and queasy moment that is unique to the story Bell is telling.
That story, with a young girl struggling against those who blindly follow tradition for no reason other than that it is tradition, is a familiar one, especially to anyone who’s seen Niki Caro’s exemplary Whale Rider. One of the movie’s key sections details an eagle hunter’s festival, complete with a competition. This bit is no less recognizable, only now we’re in the well-trod realm of the underdog sports movie. Bell was fortunate—or perhaps unfortunate—that events unfolded according to a conventional structure.
Aisholpan herself is an inspiration. And we are in a time, just like every other time, where we need more visible inspirations for young girls. By that criteria, The Eagle Huntress provides meaning. Sadly, it does so via mostly forgettable platitudes.