Documentary filmmaking is great fodder for an education, but in order for some separation between an in depth news report and a defining work such as Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2013 The Act of Killing, it’s important to understand what makes a documentary great. A great documentary rises above its subject matter, out of its context, and into a universal narrative which serves as a parable to all those who see it, much the same way a great narrative film dwells outside the realm of a point and shoot story.
With this in mind, Otto Bell’s recent documentary The Eagle Huntress is a beautiful, vast, and incredibly informative piece of video, and yet fails as a documentary. The Eagle Huntress concerns a 13 year old Mongolian girl named Aisholpan, who aspires to be the country’s first female eagle huntress. Eagle hunting is an art and hunting discipline dating back to traditional Mongolian times, and is when a hunter uses an eagle to hunt foxes in the mountains in the winter. Though this is no longer necessary, it is still widely practiced across the nation, where tournaments are commonplace.
Aisholpan comes from a nomadic family 100 miles from the nearest town, with a male history of eagle hunting. She grew up watching her father go eagle hunting, and is inspired to take a similar path in her own life, before eventually becoming a doctor.
The photography from Simon Niblett is exquisite, and we capture intimate photos in the family and in Aisholpan’s training to become an eagle hunter, as well as wonderful kaleidoscopic frames of rural Mongolia, which serve as a wonderful tourism advertisement. There is a terrifically beautiful recurring theme from Sia. We are also left in awe of the eagles and their trainers, as the forces of nature in this film are raised to an almost religious level, with sacrifices being made to eagles after they have been released for seven years, and brief prayers before every action made with an eagle. The film is a spectacle and a wonderful excavation of a world that is largely ignored by the west.
What is lacking from Bell’s investigation is any real sense of gravity or importance to Aisholpan’s journey itself. Despite being the first female in a traditionally male discipline, with plenty of protestors, Aisholpan never really comes across any real hurdles. She is a uniquely talented trainer, and blitzes her first tournament with a victory. In voiceover, her father Nurgaiv outlines how horribly wrong each challenge could potentially go, and yet she succeeds in all of them without even starting to look like she could be out of control. When she first goes hunting, Nurgaiv warns us that it can sometimes take up to two weeks to capture a fox, and yet she accomplishes it in what appears to be her first day in the mountains. Threats to her success are only ever perceived and never tangibly addressed, or even relevant.
The protestors to the inclusion of a female in the discipline of eagle hunting are interviewed individually, and made to look farcical, but never intervene with Aisholpan in any way. They are simply old men with conservative traditional reservations, without any impetus to act on them. The conflict, whilst Bell tries to play it up, is benign, and the large majority of the crowd at the eagle hunting tournament seems wildly supportive of Aisholpan’s unusual ambitions.
Whilst I appreciate the look into the beautiful countryside of Mongolia, and my newfound knowledge and admiration of the art of eagle hunting, I am left having understood nothing new about the inner workings of the society or the lives that comprise it, and so whilst this film is beautiful and comprehensive, it can only be a failure as a work of art.