There’s a spirit that soars in German filmmaker Otto Bell’s first feature documentary, The Eagle Huntress, which tells the story of 13-year-old Aisholpan Nurgaiv and her quest to break through a centuries-old gender barrier. Specifically, she wants to become the first girl in 12 generations of her family to hunt game in partnership with a wild eagle. Girl power is the theme and the driving force behind the film – it’s narrated by the young Force Awakens discovery Daisy (“Rey”) Ridley – as Aisholpan shows her nomadic Kazakh tribe that she has the stuff to open up an honored position that’s been passed down from one generation of males to the next. Aisholpan’s father has been awarded several medals for eagle training while her mother is mostly seen at home slaving over the stove. Point taken, though Bell rarely tires of remaking it. There are times when the footage Bell captures seems less found than engineered.
But from the moment we see Aisholpan climb down a steep slope on the snow-covered Altai Mountains to capture an eaglet for training, we’re hooked. And watching her compete against grown men in the Golden Eagle Festival is especially satisfying as reflected in the eyes of the young girls who find inspiration in watching her. Simon Niblett’s cinematography, utilizing drones to catch impossible scenes of flight, is extraordinary, especially in the winter hunting sequences that end the film. But it’s the face and skill of of Aisholpan you’ll remember. Over the end credits, Sia sings a song with the lyrics, “You can do anything.” No need for the reminder. We’ve just seen it with our own astonished eyes.