I have a new heroine. She’s called Aisholpan. She’s 13 years old. She is The Eagle Huntress.
This is a raving review, not only of a beautiful piece of film-making (an amazing undertaking by novice Otto Bell), but of a girl showing bravery, resilience and passion despite the not inconsiderable obstacles of tradition and terrain. Set in the stunning mountains of Mongolia, The Eagle Huntress is a documentary that looks at the nomadic way of life, tradition and progress on an intimate level. As viewers, we are privileged to experience the coming-of-age of an extraordinary girl. Aisholpan is a trailblazer, but all the more for how unremarkable she is in other ways. She goes to school, looks after her siblings, paints her nails, has dreams of becoming a doctor. She lives in a world that is changing – straddling the nomadic tradition and the increasingly modern world.
Aisholpan’s forebears are Eagle Hunters: revered members of the nomadic tribes, bringers of food and fur, masters of the majestic Golden Eagle and, always, men. It is a male inheritance, a male ancestry. This is a celebration of non-conformity. This is a story not only about a young woman, but about the men around her that have the strength to correct a long-lived falsehood – that women are not strong enough, resilient enough, patient enough. Instead they are proud to say, ‘Women are more than enough’.
Aged 13, Aisholpan proves herself to be a robust and talented individual, regardless of those factors which others have proclaimed must exclude her. Even the proof of their own eyes will not persuade the tribe elders of their misjudgement. Aisholpan’s victory in the festival is received with discomfort and disregard. ‘It’s proof of a sort’, concedes one of the elders. The objection remains that Aisholpan has yet to prove herself beyond the arena, that she must succeed in the wilderness, too – only then will she be worthy. The catch-22 is that the objective is one of which they do not think her capable.
All too often this is true for those who are female, non-binary, of colour. Going beyond the achievement of the male (or oppressor of any kind) does not guarantee triumph, it does not even guarantee equality. Yet, it has been said that the best revenge is success. Fitting, then, that the film ends with Aisholpan catching her first fox, having weathered the brutal conditions of the mountains. There is abundant proof of her capability and even more of her contentedness.
The role of the Eagle Hunter or Huntress is vital for survival; it serves both a practical and a spiritual purpose. The meat and fur provided by the day’s hunt will keep the families alive. The connection between the eagle and the hunter is sacred. It is a partnership built on mutual dependence; it is a significant connection with the natural world.
Particularly moving was Aisholpan’s attitude and outlook throughout the film. From scaling a mountain face to capture her eaglet to competing in the world-renowned festival (as the first female and youngest competitor), she approaches everything with a stoic calm and assuredness. Perhaps this can be attributed to her youth, but it is an attitude of which many young women are stripped early on. She turns an entire tradition on it’s head without missing a step. She is never disrespectful to her heritage, though; she is simply growing into who she is and has every right to be. Becoming an Eagle Huntress is not a child’s whim, it is an act of dedication and a sweeping aside of barriers that ought not to be there.
If in doubt, ask yourself, what would Aisholpan do?