September 8, 2016

A Bird in the Hand: A Look at Otto Bell's 'The Eagle Huntress'

Aisholpan. Photo by Asher Svidensky. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

There are moments of subtlety and nuances of character development to be discovered in the visual narrative of the documentary, The Eagle Huntress, but they are easy to miss.  It is a classic example of the spectacle of the big picture—golden eagles soaring through blue and white marbled skies—overshadowing  the quieter, more intimate moments. If this was a Western it would be a case of the director, Otto Bell, facing off against the cinematographer, Simon Niblett. Although Niblett did envision the heroic tableau of a western while composing the shots for this documentary, both men are on the same team and have worked together for several years on various shorter films and creative projects. There is a delicate balance that they weave between the macro and the micro with this film, and a second viewing really helped this viewer to recognize those subtler moments.

Bell first learned of the eagle hunters and of Aisholpan, the 13-year-old Kazakh girl for which this film is named, via the photos of Asher Svidensky. Reaching out to the Israeli photographer through social media, Bell was able to convince Svidensky that he and his team were the best fit to bring Aisholpan's story to the outside world—and the rest, as they say, is a documentary, one that was two years in the making.

Otto Bell, director/producer, with Aisholpan, Courtesy of Otto Bell.The Eagle Huntress follows young Aisholpan as she trains with her father, Nurgaiv, to become the 12th eagle hunter in the family's lineage. Despite the resistance of an age-old tradition that dictates that eagle hunters must be male, Aisholpan and her father are determined for her to capture her own eaglet and become the first female eagle hunter in the family's history. Fortunately, she has the full support of both her father and her mother, Almagul. It is Aisholpan's mother who points out that there is nothing within the rules of the Golden Eagle Festival, the proving ground for generations of Kazakh eagle hunters, that prohibits females from entering the competition.

With the sensory overload of sublime vistas and a foreign language (Kazakh) requiring the use of subtitles, one might not notice when young Aisholpan's facial expression toggles from her beatific smile to a frustrated frown; by my count, it only occurs three times within the documentary, and the moments vanish almost as quickly as they appear, but the reasons for this nuanced display of emotion should be left to the viewer to discern. Speaking to the subtleties mentioned earlier, there is also the barely perceptible detail of Aisholpan's chipped purple nail polish as she scales down a mountaintop and jury-rigs a lasso to capture her fledgling eaglet. If you do manage to register this particular detail, like me, you may just chalk it up to the inevitability of a nomadic lifestyle, where the oldest child (her older brother having been conscripted by the military) is expected to help her father with the feeding and shepherding of the family's livestock, and her mother with the other chores inside and outside the family's nomadic home.

Bell admits that this particular detail and its significance were completely missed by him. It was not until he was showing the footage of the eagle capture to his girlfriend (now fiancée) that he realized the emotional resonance that such a small moment could elicit: "Cayte responded to that little detail, the chipped nail polish, with such empathy; I knew we had something special. Not only was this acutely shy girl performing these amazing feats—scaling down a mountain, hypnotizing an eaglet with rhythmic hand gestures—she was also, at heart, a 13-year old girl who loves to tie ribbons in her hair, paint her nails and hang out with her friends. Based on Cayte's reaction, I knew that sort of thing would resonate with an audience, but let's face it, as a dude, I am rather clueless about that sort of thing."

Although the capture of the eaglet takes place within the climax of the doc's first act, in real time it transpired on the first day that photographer Asher Svidensky brought Bell and cameraman Christopher Raymond to meet the family. While sitting down to a traditional drink of milky Kazakh tea, Nurgaiv mentioned, "My daughter and I are going to steal an eaglet from its nest. Is that the kind of thing you would like to film?" And although Bell wanted to respond with a resounding "Yes," he realized that he and his fellow filmmakers were just barely equipped to cover the capture.

"There's only a small window available for the eagle capture, when the eaglet is strong enough to survive outside the nest but not yet strong enough to fly," Bell explains. "It's a timespan of only a few days, but we would never get a second chance for such an opportunity, so my motley crew and I packed up my Zoom sound recorder, a GoPro Hero4, Chris' Canon C300, Asher's Mark IV, and just went for it. It's a credit to our editor, Pierre Takal, that the sequence looks as good as does.

Left to right: Shokhan, Camera Assistant Ben Crossley and Aishoplan’s father, Rys Nurgaiv Photo by Andrew Yarme, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

"Reviewing that footage back home with Cayte, I realized there was an amazing juxtapostion, a duality," Bell reflects. "Aisholpan was a steely eagle hunter and also a sweet young girl, and I knew that my all-male crew and I really couldn't do justice to the latter. The film needed a more nuanced approach to be able to address that more heart-warming side of our young hero."

Bell enlisted Martina Radwan, a cinematographer and documentarian in her own right, who had been to Mongolia multiple times and whose reputation for being able to win the trust of those in front of her lens was well known within the documentary community. Already acquainted with the stoicism of the Kazakh people, Radwan lived with the family and gathered footage for two weeks; she also accompanied Aisholpan and her younger siblings as they attended school. These scenes became the personal touches, the quieter moments that the film benefits from as it gets deeper into the day-to-day life of Aisholpan and her family.

"It took Martina a little while to get the family to act naturally," Bell recalls. "Normally, they're used to tourists coming and staying the night, but after the second or third day came and went, there was the realization, ‘Oh, she's still here.' It's thanks to her experience with vérité, with getting the family to trust and accept her, that the documentary was able to get an unselfconscious glimpse into what nomadic family life is like."

What both Radwan and Bell noticed—although this does not seem quite as evident in the film itself—was Aisholpan's deep-seeded desire to win. "She's fiercely competitive," notes Bell, "and we saw that when she was playing checkers with the boys, volleyball, wrestling—whatever it is, she has to win. And that's not to say it's a negative trait; if it wasn't for that drive to win, who knows if she would have defied tradition and all those naysayers, and asked her father to train her to become an eagle huntress."

As Aisholpan herself says in the film, "Girls and boys are just as strong: if a boy can do something, girls can do it as well."

When it came to interviewing the elder eagle hunters, Bell, Niblett and camera assistant Ben Crossley traveled to the village of Sagsai, going door to door to ask generic questions about eagle hunting before soliciting thoughts on female eagle hunters. The elders' perspectives ruffled more than a few feathers in the viewing audience; these Kazakh octogenarians and septuagenarians possessed no shortage of rationalizations as to why the hunters should remain exclusively male. They seemed to be completely oblivious of any irony in their beliefs, especially since only female eagles are used for hunting, due to their greater strength and superior size. Editor Pierre Takal employs a sly sense of timing that provides one of the more humorous moments in the documentary when, during the climax of the second act, the film segues from the raucous clamor and excitement of Aisholpan winning the coveted Golden Eagle Festival in Ölgii (breaking a record or two in the process) to a denouement of static shots of each of the elders staring stone-faced at the camera. However, it does not take them long to drum up a new list of reasons she could not possibly be a true eagle hunter, and with a figurative throwing down of the byalai (leather gauntlet), they reveal to Bell the necessity for what would become the third and most grueling act for the movie: eagle hunting for fox and other small game in the harsh Mongolian winter. But first, Bell was going to have to raise some much-needed capital.

Photo by Asher Svidensky. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

"It was truly a dark time in my life," Bell confides. "I had used up all of my savings and I was 80 grand in the hole. I knew I had a movie, but I had no idea how I was going to be able to finish it." Bell took a gamble and reached out to Morgan Spurlock. "I knew of Morgan since we both did work for Olgilvy, so I sent him an email with a PDF mock-up of Asher's photos to ask if he'd be interested in watching this ten-minute promo reel we'd put together, and—"

"I was blown away," says Spurlock, in the press notes for the film. "It looked incredible, and Aisholpan's story is one of the most empowering stories you could ever hear." Spurlock subsequently came on board as an executive producer and helped Bell secure financing. He also brought in producer Stacey Reiss to help guide the documentary through its two remaining shoots and post-production process.

As Bell explains, "He helped find the editor, Pierre; he gave us access to the post-production facilities at Warrior Poets [Spurlock's company]. And he helped with Sundance, but then he also helped bring onboard his sales team from CAA when we got further down the line and had a cut. It was basically like a turnkey situation. It was pretty freakin' amazing, to be honest with you."

Unfortunately, the day before Bell was scheduled to return to Mongolia for the final leg of the documentary, he slipped on ice and fell, breaking his arm. "It was a bad break and I had to have surgery and pins put in," he says. "The doctor refused to let me fly, and when I told him in no uncertain terms that I was definitely going, he gave me this ridiculous, extra-large and extremely clumsy padded cast and a tube of Vicodin. And I went for it."

When asked about the difficulties of the winter shoot, Niblett points out, "The lows, not unusual for a film of this kind, were more centered on the logistics of shooting in an environment like Mongolia. There were cancelled flights, problems with transporting batteries, difficulties with equipment that didn't take kindly to the conditions, and then simple things like not eating and sleeping well. The conditions were either very cold or very dry and dusty, depending on the time of year. Electronic equipment does not thrive well in either [condition]. Battery life is poor in the cold and LCD screens often don't work. A lot of time was spent trying to keep things warm, and most evenings there was something to fix. There was no option to get replacements for anything, so there was a lot of gaffer tape and super glue used.

Photo by Asher Svidensky. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

"I had always believed that you could make a film look good with a low budget and a small crew, and I think that we achieved a balance between raw documentary and doing the story and locations justice pictorially," Niblett maintains.

The film has generated positive feedback from the press, and has fared well with audiences on the festival circuit. "We got standing ovations at Sundance," says Bell. "And that was one of those moments I'll never forget, being there with Aisholpan and her family, to be receiving that level of acceptance. Even the eagles were there, but not the actual birds—customs would take far too long with quarantine to be able to bring them over. The Comanche people stepped up and brought their eagles to Sundance for a naming ceremony for Aisholpan, and for the photo ops at the festival, and they did the same for Toronto and Telluride; they believe they are descended from the Mongolians via an ancient land bridge, and they went out of their way to welcome her and her family. Geralyn Dreyfous, founder of Impact Partners and the Utah Film Center, set them up with a host family who also had a 14-year-old daughter, and they went bowling and had a bunch of parties, so that was wonderful.

"Sundance was rather nerve-wracking, truth be told," Bell admits. "I still hadn't screened it in its entirety for the family, and I wasn't sure how it would be received by the press, because they can influence whether you get picked up or not, but the reviews actually came out really well—Kenneth Turan of the LA Times and Melissa Silverstein of IndieWire were big champions of the film, just to name a few. And I didn't know it at the time, but Tom Bernard, co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics, was in the audience for the premiere, and he was sitting next to one of the Comanches, so he was fully immersed in the experience. He had walked in not knowing what the film was about, and then he saw it and he loved it, and a small bidding war broke out. We've all heard about this sort of thing before, but I never imagined I'd be experiencing this with my first feature. In the end, we went with Sony Pictures Classics, who were amazing and they've scheduled this incredible theatrical release for the film. It doesn't get any better."


The Eagle Huntress is the opening film of the 2016 IDA Documentary Screening Series. The film opens theatrically November 2 through Sony Pictures Classics.

Tom Gianakopoulos is a Los Angeles-based writer and photographer.