Lawrence Toppman

‘Eagle Huntress’ shows girls are the same all over – even on the steppes

Aisholpan Nurgaiv wants to compete with male trainers, an idea that shakes up the elders of her Mongolian tribe in “The Eagle Huntress.”
Aisholpan Nurgaiv wants to compete with male trainers, an idea that shakes up the elders of her Mongolian tribe in “The Eagle Huntress.” Sony Pictures Classics

At first glance, “The Eagle Huntress” could be Disney material. It’s narrated by Daisy Ridley, who has become a feminine empowerment symbol since “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” It has a hook-laden title song by Sia, a strong-willed 13-year-old heroine with an animal sidekick, and a theme that resonates with young adults: When “wise” elders tell you not to pursue your destiny, keep pushing.

It even has a cornball tagline: “The spellbinding true story about a 13-year-old girl on an epic journey to gain victory in a faraway land.” Sounds like superhero material, yeah?

Except it’s a documentary, it’s set on the plains of Mongolia, and it’s not in English. And what Aisholpan wants is to become the first female in her tribe to master the art of hunting and competing with a wild eagle she captures and trains. The land isn’t far away from her home; it’s just far from us. And her “epic journey” lasts one day on horseback, though she and her father ride over rough-looking country.

Hype aside, this is an extremely simple but likeable film. Aisholpan attends middle school five days a week away from home; on weekends, she returns to help her family. Her father, a champion eagle hunter, encourages her to follow in her footsteps. Mom goes along, a little reluctantly. Old men in the village do not, uttering the usual platitudes about women’s household roles, lack of stamina, frailty, etc.

Aisholpan faces three challenges. She must take an eaglet from its cliffside eyrie when it’s old enough to live outside the nest but not old enough to fly away. She must compete in a regional eagle-handling contest. And she must take her eagle onto the wintry steppes and teach it to kill a fox. That requires not just training skill but strength, as she’ll ride around for hours with a 15-pound bird on her arm.

Director Otto Bell repeats himself often. We hear old men mutter words of disparagement again and again, though the feeling isn’t universal: Elderly judges at the eagle festival give her high ratings, and they could mark her down out of prejudice if they chose to.

Yet Aisholpan, who has a merry face to go with her sturdy frame, holds the camera without playing to it, and the barrenly beautiful landscape holds your eye. As alien as this countryside may seem to Westerners, the sexist naysaying of its inhabitants will be quite familiar.

I wondered at the end whether Aisholpan will remain an eagle huntress when she marries, has children and assumes duties in her own home, or whether she’ll feel she has proven her point and put her eagle down. Guess we’ll have to wait until 2023 for “Eagle Huntress II” to find out.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

The Eagle Huntress

Director: Otto Bell.

Length: 87 minutes.

Rating: G.