‘Eagle Huntress’ Director on the Incredible 13-Year-Old Mongolian Girl Who Inspired the Sundance Hit

the eagle huntress
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

It’s easy to see why “The Eagle Huntress” was such a crowd-pleaser when it debuted at last winter’s Sundance Film Festival. Hollywood scribes would be hard-pressed to cook up a more uplifting story than that of Aisholpan Nurgaiv, the upbeat teen at the center of the documentary. She’s a true feminist hero, although it’s unlikely that she sees herself as any kind of barrier breaker. Through a mixture of grit and optimism, the Mongolian girl becomes the rare female to train and hunt with eagles, chasing her pray on horseback, through snowbanks, and across the rocky terrain of the Central Asian wilderness, where she lives with her nomadic family.

The film hit theaters this week. It has earned raves and established itself as a viable contender in the Oscar race for the best documentary statue. Variety spoke with Otto Bell, who makes his feature debut with the picture, about what drew him to the project, the challenges of shooting in freezing conditions, and why he hopes his movie will inspire young viewers to follow their dreams.

How did you find out about Aisholpan?

I saw a photo essay on BBC.com with these really beautiful images by a young Israeli photographer. I was looking for a topic to make a feature documentary about, and I felt like there must be a story behind those photographs.

Had you ever been to Mongolia?

Never. I’d made a bunch of commercials for brands with real people at the heart of them and that had brought me to strange corners of the world like Uganda and Russia, but in retrospect I was a little cavalier. The day we arrived, Aisholpan and her father told us they were going to try to capture an eagelette from the mountainside. They were like, “is that the sort of thing you’d want to film?” It became the first act of the movie.

We shot most of it in one take, from three different angles, while the mother eagle flew overhead. We practically killed ourselves scrambling down the ledge. It was pretty hairy.

That sequence is so tense. Aisholpan is climbing down this steep mountainside as her father holds a rope. Were you worried for her safety?

She’s incredibly sure-footed. When we were getting to know her, we saw her clambering over some vertiginous landscapes with her brother and sister. You have to remember this is their backyard.

Aisholpan’s parents seem nonplussed by having their daughter compete in a male-dominated activity. Are they unusually progressive?

I don’t think they’re crusading feminists. It’s nothing that extreme. My sense is she earned the right to hunt in her father’s eyes. This isn’t in the film, but the family’s eldest son got conscripted into the army and so Aisholpan had to take on many of his jobs and chores. Her mother says she was always fascinated with the eagles. As a young girl she’d crawl over and help him feed them and she’d always want to go out hunting. She demonstrated the aptitude, so what could her parents say? I don’t think it was about being progressive.

At another pivotal moment in the film, Aisholpan wins a major hunting competition. Given that many eagle hunters don’t believe women should hunt, were you surprised she won?

There had been other instances of female eagle hunters in history, but she was the first in her corner of the world and certainly the first female to compete in that festival. Many of the judges couldn’t fathom a girl doing this, but what sealed it is she broke a record in the main event of the competition. It was inarguable at the point. I knew she’d been training very hard, but I was still surprised. She’d built up a bond with her bird and her voice was strongly imprinted on him. It was an amazing moment when she won. I was crying. Everyone was crying.

Girls aren’t encouraged to hunt with eagles, but what is Mongolia like in terms of women’s rights?

It’s not a backwards culture. Girls get an equal education. They’ve been able to vote since 1915.

Why did you want to tell this story?

I want young girls and boys to be inspired by Aisholpan and to realize that if they work hard and are determined, they can do anything they want to. I know the film is exotic and it’s in a foreign language, but it has a universal message. In some ways, she is just a normal thirteen year old. She likes painting her nails and giggling with her friends. But she also has this switch and when she turns it on, nothing can stand in her way.

I took inspiration from her. It was hard not to when it’s minus 50 degrees and she’s out there plowing ahead with a smile on her face. I didn’t really feel I could complain about it being too cold.