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'The Eagle Huntress': Karlovy Vary Review

Dir: Otto Bell. US.  2016.  87 mins

Centuries-old traditions, dutifully handed down from father to son,  are challenged by a cheerily determined teenage girl in The Eagle Huntress. Otto Bell’s fairytale documentary unfolds amidst the natural majesty and changing seasons of the Altai mountains in Mongolia and boasts an immensely sympathetic central  figure in 13 year-old Aisholpan. A stunning location and a winning character are cannily deployed to create a likeable film in which audiences will need little persuasion to cheer the triumph of the underdog. The result is a family-friendly crowdpleaser that should reward a theatrical release although it will seem just as at home on documentary channels and ancillary outlets.

There are times when The Eagle Huntress feels more like fiction than fact

Bell spent more than a year in Mongolia capturing the story of Aisholpan and her family. A rosy-cheeked, pigtail wearing, straight-A student, Aisholpan has a burning ambition to follow in the footsteps of her father and become an eagle huntress. Such a desire is clearly unacceptable to hardliners who believe that only men are worthy of such an honour and that women have their own special place in the circle of life milking cows, preparing meals and keeping the yurt clean.

Some of the film’s humour comes from interviews with a selection of men who seem to visibly suck their teeth and purse their lips as they contemplate the horrors of what she is proposing.

Aisholpan’s father is of a different mind and is the most supportive and nurturing parent a teenage rebel could want. He is the one who encourages her ambitions, who makes her believe that anything is possible and who holds tight to the rope as she is lowered down a slippery cliff to steal an eaglet from a nest. He trains her in handling the eaglet, bonding with the bird, learning how to launch it from her arm and how to use her strength to sustain the impact of its return to her outstretched arm.

Aisholpan’s decision to join the 70 all-male competitors in the annual Golden Eagle Festival lends the film a structure as the countdown to the event is matched by her training sessions. The Festival itself provides a series of challenges in the fashion of a Young Adult novel in which Aisholpan must pit herself against the best in a bid to win respect.

There are times when The Eagle Huntress feels more like fiction than fact. Are Aisholpan are her family normally this chatty and analytical? How did they get those beautiful aerial shots of Aisholpan and her father crossing a frozen river in the bitter depths of winter? Is it really necessary to retreat from nature raw in tooth and claw as we are spared the gory details of a sheep’s slaughter or a fox’s capture by a resolute eagle? 

On many levels this is a story tailor-made for a rousing animated epic in the manner of Mulan. Bell seems a little too ready to hit those big emotional moments and the film does feel a little too simplistic and hasty in places. Allowing more room for the material to breathe and to explore other issues might have created a richer experience. Instead, Bell is keen to always accentuate the positive from the schoolgirl chums awed by Aisholpan’s daring, to the way that everything she touches turns to success. Allowing more room for the material to breathe and to explore other issues might have created a richer experience. 

Star Wars actor Daisy Ridley was one of the film’s executive producers, along with Morgan Spurlock, but her rather wooden delivery of the intermittent narration adds little to the film. The music, now including a title song written and sung by Sia, seems determined to add an extra jolt of emotional uplift where it is really not required. 

Sony Classics bought The Eagle Huntress for multiple territories following its world premiere at Sundance. The narration and the music seem to be nudging the film towards a future that seeks to emulate the success of March Of The Penguins or Monkey Kingdom. While The Eagle Huntress is undeniably sweet and engaging but it is prhaps too straightforward and modest in scale to entirely shoulder the burden of such commercial expectations.

Production companies: Stacey Reiss Productions, Nissaki Films, 19340 Productions

International sales: Celluloid Dreams  gaetan@celluloid-dreams.com

Producers: Stacey Reiss, Sharon Chang, Otto Bell

Cinematography: Simon Niblett

Editor: Pierre Takai

Music: Jingle Punks, Jeff Peters

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