Eagles fly overhead, guarding their nests with extreme jealousy. These are some of the most dangerous, yet beautiful animals on Earth; their wings stretch into the distance, and their talons are sharper than scissors. Such beautiful creatures are elegant, destructive and fascinating; beings to admire from afar. So, how is it that for centuries, native people from the wilds of Kazakhstan have trained eagles to hunt for them? In Otto Bell's film The Eagle Huntress, we are treated to a detailed account of the methods used, and the way eagle hunters take advantage of eagle's natural instincts to create a partnership that is beneficial for the interests of both humans and eagles.
The focus of The Eagle Huntress is one particular eagle trainer; a passionate 13-year-old girl named Aisholpan. (At least, she was 13 years old during most of the filming.) As soon as she sees any eagle, a change comes over her eyes; she sees life, beauty, and magnificence. She interacts with her father's eagle with the same natural ease as if it were one of her own two siblings; later in the film, when she catches and trains her own eagle, it is as though she is dealing with a child of her own.
Aisholpan and her eagle have natural chemistry. It is amazing to watch her call to her eagle and ride horseback with bait, and to see the love in her eyes when the eagle catches the bait. Similarly, when she is the one releasing the eagle from a cliff top, she watches closely, with great affection and determination, as the eagle finds bait quickly.
Judged eagle hunting contests take place every year in a central Kazakhstan city, and one of Aisholpan's greatest desires to take part in a competition. Technically, Aisholpan doesn't have to take part in any competition in order to be an eagle hunter, but she sees it as a chance to prove her worth to the community as a whole, and as a way of challenging herself. She also thinks it will help her eagle become a more confident hunter in a real situation. There is also another issue; one that she never directly comments on, but one that has deeper implications not only for her interest in eagle hunting, but on the eagle hunting community as a whole. Eagle hunting in Kazahk society is seen as a profession for men only. Men find the food, women cook the food and take care of the house. No exceptions.
Due to her love for eagle hunting, many see Aisholpan as an anomaly at best, so when Aisholpan aces the competition there is a certain amount of disbelief. There must have been people outside Aisholpan's family, friends and circle of acquaintances who approved of her entry into the trials. However, we don't hear from them because of the requirements of the film's narrative. The idea that a female could perform so well at the eagle hunting trials is not only an affront to certain tribal elders' ideals, it is also an example of cognitive dissonance. The elders who heard the news (and believed it) reacted mostly with stunned silence, although one suggested that the judges went easy on her because she was female. The idea that any female could perform at such a high level is astonishing to them, even when the proof is in front of their faces. Aisholpan herself doesn't care either way; she performed the trials, she got her scores, and now she's comfortable taking her eagle to the wild and hunting for real.
In this amazing documentary, we get to see Aisholpan evolve from eagle training neophyte to confident hunter, regardless of the biases of the society she lives in. She stands atop a cliff with her eagle, in search of prey, and watches with pride as her eagle soars.