I have to admit, I don’t watch a lot of documentaries, but I’ve loved the ones I’ve seen. Some of them haven’t felt like documentaries at all, mainly because the stories behind them are a little too one-sided or hard to believe. Films like Super Size Me and Bowling for Columbine have been accused of being false, manipulative as well as misleading. I start off with this because the documentary, The Eagle Huntress, which is released in select cinemas this week, has been accused of being staged, scripted and even acted. But even factoring all of this, does that clench the final verdict that the documentary is a bad viewing experience? In this case, yes and no.
The documentary follows Aisholpan Nurgaiv, an incredibly optimistic 13 year-old girl, who has long been fascinated by the practice of eagle hunting, as demonstrated by her father and his father before him. They of course encourage her interest, despite the fact that she spends weekdays at a school far from the family home, due to the lack of dorms in the Altai Mountains region. At her school, she is practically known as a tomboy, where she excels academically as well as athletically.
Her father then takes her out to capture an eagle chick off a cliff face and after the ritual, we see the progress between Aisholpan and the bird to the point where she enters unannounced in a eagle hunting competition, being the only female competitor.
From the subject alone as well as its political implications, the film is a surefire winner. Aisholpan is a wonderful subject that is certain to inspire many due to her empowerment, her strength and her sheer will to succeed in what she wants to be. But, unfortunately, the filmmakers milk this for all its worth.
Aisholpan doesn’t seem to go through many obstacles throughout the film, with the exception of a few negative outbursts from the townspeople due to traditionalist (i.e. sexist) values, like how a woman should stick to staying home. And what makes the film problematic is that the editing is constructed in a way that it makes the events feel staged, instead of organic. The musical score (including the closing song from Sia) adds to the issue as well, feeling like the filmmaker is force-feeding an agenda, rather than just documenting the subject. Even the narration from Daisy Ridley (whose voice I love to hear) is quite unnecessary.
The film is definitely well-shot (thanks to Simon Niblett), with all of the crane as well as drone shots, showing the wide scope of the mountains and the valleys in Western Mongolia beautifully. And there are moments where there is actual suspense, like in a scene where Aisholpan and her father are riding their horses through incredibly deep snow that is almost shoulder-high.
Don’t get me wrong, I truly admire the message and found the journey of Aisholpan very inspiring and if it inspires one person out there to be more like her, then the film can’t possibly be bad. But the morally questionable film-making distracts me to the point that I can’t give it full credit.
Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Eagle Huntress is in select cinemas now.