Oscars: ‘Eagle Huntress’ and Other Documentaries Merit Artisan Attention

Eagle Huntress
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

In Oscar history, no feature documentary has been nominated for best picture. At some point that will change, and certainly many of the 2016 docus are credible contenders.

Even if that doesn’t happen, voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences should remember that documentaries are eligible in other categories. As a few examples: The editing of  “13th” (Ava DuVernay’s gripping study), “O.J.: Made in America”  and “Fire at Sea”; the cinematography in “The Eagle Huntress” and “The Ivory Game”; and the sound in “Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing” and “Miss Sharon Jones!” are as complex and impressive as any narrative film. These documentaries and many others, deserve recognition in multiple areas.

Though docus have gained a few nominations over the years, including editing bids for “Woodstock” and “Hoop Dreams,” they are generally ignored outside their own category. But the docu-makers’ degree of difficulty is often extreme.

For example, “The Eagle Huntress” is about 13-year-old Aisholpan Nurgaiv, a Mongolian girl who wants to follow in her father’s footsteps and join the male-dominated profession of hunting with a trained eagle.

It’s a pretty oddball topic, but the movie is fun and the artisan work is impressive. Otto Bell, in his filmmaking debut, worked with a team under conditions that rival “The Revenant”: temperatures of 50 degrees below zero, limited sunlight each day and treacherous locations. (Needless to say, the film was made for a fraction of the “Revenant” budget.)

“Huntress” features a 12-minute sequence when Aisholpan and her father scramble up a cliff to take a young eagle from his nest just a day or two before he is ready to fly. The sequence is heart-stopping — even more so when you realize the filmmakers had to climb that same cliff.

Bell laughs that the crew basically consisted of three people; as for that dangerous climb, “It was our first day of filming.” And they had to do it in one take, before the mother eagle returned to the nest. Two people were on the cliff filming the action; cameraman Chris Raymond shot the action from the base of the mountain; and a Go-Pro was attached to Aisholpan “for that crucial third angle and her point of view; 99% of the stuff from that camera was unusable but for those few moments, it was a godsend.”

Other sequences involve her training the eagle (after seven years, tradition demands that the bird be returned to the wild) and competing in a local festival/contest. Bell says of cinematographer Simon Niblett: “He was shooting from hundreds of yards away, and the bird moves at 180 miles per hour, but he managed to keep those images so sharp. His depth of field is down to a foot and a half.”

The small team took about six or seven trips to Mongolia, July 2014 to March 2015, funded by Bell himself. “After I visited for the first time, I realized the scale of landscape and how we needed to do justice to it. I didn’t want to scrimp on the cinematography.

“My biggest expense was excess luggage: I took about 700 kilos of gear. That included an S1000 drone that could carry a 4K camera. And Simon built a 9-meter aluminium crane that folds into a snowboard bag.”

Bell did much of the sound, with a hand-held zoom recorder. For most of the sequences, there was no chance of retakes, but they tried to get as much coverage as possible. “It was a bit ragtag, to be honest,” he laughs, “but our editor Pierre Takal smoothed it all out.”

The Sony Pictures Classics release is just one of 145 documentaries that were submitted for Oscar this year. Most of them, like this film, were done with minimum budgets and maximum ingenuity. The work deserves consideration.