Eagle Huntress is Nest-Bound

Directed by Otto Bell
Sony Pictures Classics, 87 minutes, English subtitles, G (animals harmed)

The Eagle Huntress played at my local cinema for so long I finally decided to see what all the fuss was about. Here’s your answer: Not much. The Oscars wisely withheld a Best Documentary nomination for this contrivance, and I don’t generally use the words “Oscars” and “wisely” in the same non-ironic sentence. The Eagle Huntress depressed me—not the subject matter, but the thought that audiences are so starved for something honeyed that they will settle for watered-down NutraSweet.

The film follows Aisholpan Nurgaiv’s quest to become a champion eagle handler. Aisholpan comes from twelve-generations of respected eagle hunters, but faces a challenge: this young Kazakh is a girl seeking to make her mark in a sport hitherto reserved for males. Alas, this is only a perseverance tale for young girls for the terminally Politically Correct crowd. Aisholpan’s major obstacle isn’t gender—it’s getting up to snuff. Her father, Rys, has allowed her to handle eagles since she was tiny, is 100% supportive of her goal, and aids her at every step. And, because his family is associated with a line of exalted eagle executors, those who would cleave to patriarchal tradition can only sneer and tut-tut Aisholpan’s boldness. I must admit that they look quite regal doing so in their colorful Kazakh robes, structurally impressive hats, and imposing moustaches, but we already know they can’t stop her, so pull the plug on that piece of potential drama. Ditto Aisholpan’s ascent into an eagle aerie to kidnap a three-month-old eagle. We see her belay down a rock face with Rys playing out the rope, but we also know she won’t fall or be mauled by a PO’d Golden Eagle Mama because this is a G-rated film for heaven’s sake.

Director Otto Bell swears that he didn’t stage any of the dialogue or scenes, but it sure plays that way. But I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because I don’t want to add “lousy script writer” to his job description. Imagine Werner Herzog in one of his worst bouts of New Age excess. Sprinkle with dad/daughter bonding. Knead into bland Disney-like dough. Add more filler than the last five pages of a paper from a panicked sophomore sixty minutes from deadline. Sound appetizing? Shots of the Mongolian steppes and craggy snow-covered mountains are breath-taking in their beauty, but they are often National Geographic discursion merely masquerading as back story to Aisholpan’s appearance before bemused co-contestants and skeptical judges.

The Eagle Huntress is essentially the Westminster Dog Show for eagles and handlers in exotic costumes. Aisholpan competes at a festival in a town several days’ horse ride from where her semi-nomadic herding family is camped. Over the course of three days she has to demonstrate her prowess in making her eagle come to her (in several situations), grab onto bait, gracefully soar onto her arm, and simulate various hunting maneuvers. Although it’s unclear if this is part of the competition or a tribal confirmation of her status, Aisholpan and her father also set off for snowy high elevation to meet the ultimate challenge of having her eagle kill a fox. For the squeamish, rabbits and sheep don’t fare very well in the film either.   

Aisholpan is fearless and charming and the scenery is awe-inspiring, but overall The Eagle Huntress is turgid, dull, and fake-feeling. Its 87-minute length could have been pared to twenty and lost nothing in the telling. Call this one as over-sold as its Sia pop song theme: “You Can Do Anything.” All that’s lacking for the total force-fed feel-good package is a troupe of dancing puppets.

Rob Weir   

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