Called 2016’s most feminist film, The Eagle Huntress is a groundbreaking documentary that follows 13-year-old Aisholpan (ash-ol-pan) as she challenges the male-dominated Kazakh (kaz-awk) tradition of training, competing, and hunting with a golden eagle. It is director Otto Bell’s first film, and is defining him as a feminist with family values.
The Kazakh are a group of nomadic people in Mongolia, a country between Russia and China, where the tradition of golden eagle hunting is typically passed from father to son. The term “hunt” is misleading, because the Kazakh do not harm the eagles. Rather, the eagles are trained to hunt for the family they are bound to, for about seven years on average. With a wingspan of over six feet and the ability to fly at speeds reaching 120 miles per hour, these animals are essential to the wellbeing of Kazakh families. It is safe to say that witnessing a young, rosy-cheeked girl handle such an intimidating and majestic animal is quite inspiring.
Otto Bell first saw Aisholpan in a BBC editorial. She was happily posed in the Altai Mountains with a large eagle perched on her arm. Bell’s instinct told him that there was a story behind this photo. He was so moved by the power of this young woman that his initial intention on making The Eagle Huntress was to portray female empowerment. The family did not consciously decide to raise a crusading feminist; Aisholpan developed an affinity to eagles at a young age, so in a way, becoming an eagle huntress was her destiny. Aisholpan had to fight very hard to become an eagle huntress, which is the most moving part of the film, according to Bell.
When he first began filming, Bell did not know where the story would take him. He could not have predicted the challenges that Aisholpan would have to overcome or how much difficulty she would have proving herself to her community. Since most of the men in the tribe rejected the idea of her becoming an eagle hunter, Aisholpan’s accomplishments are that much more meaningful.
Witnessing Aisholpan’s journey has changed Bell’s life. He wanted The Eagle Huntress to speak to women of any age who may feel like they cannot accomplish something because of their gender. “Be determined and focused on what you want to achieve, and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t,” says Bell. “You will watch [The Eagle Huntress] and you will want your daughters, god-daughter, nieces, any girl who has ever had any kind of dream to watch it.”
The success of the documentary has allowed Aisholpan to attend any university she wants; she aspires to study medicine. For her, dreams really do come true. Bell hopes that one day his documentary will be shown in schools to inspire young girls and boys to pursue their dreams, whatever they may be.
As for the director himself, Otto Bell was born in Northumberland, England and attended Oxford, where he studied English. From there he became the creative director for an advertising company, where he first began to produce and direct short documentary-style films. The Eagle Huntress will soon be transformed into an animated feature at 20th Century Fox, and Bell will be a producer.
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