A gender barrier upheld for hundreds of years falls before the prowess of a 13-year-old girl in the U.S.-produced documentary “The Eagle Huntress.” Otto Bell’s first feature traces its heroine’s quest to become Mongolia’s first female practitioner of the titular skill, in which a wild eagle is trained to hunt game in tandem with its human keeper. A pervasive girl-power message underlined by the “You can do anything” refrain of Sia’s closing pop theme song, this entertaining slice of real-life inspirational adventure should appeal to family audiences not grossed out by brief animal butchery and a fox’s climactic fate. Nonfiction-cinema purists may be less enthralled with content that often feels somewhat staged, and highly manipulated in the editing room.
Cheerful, seemingly fearless Aisholpan Nurgaiv has been fascinated by her father and grandfather’s practice of this traditional hunting method from an early age. They’ve encouraged her interest, even though she spends weekdays at a dormitory away from the nomadic family’s yurt, due to the sparse scattering of available schools in their Altai Mountains region. Even there, she’s a tomboy who excels at athletics as well as academics.
One day her father allows her to capture a golden eagle chick (its considerable size already belying that term) from a cliffside nest. Girl and bird (the latter seems surprisingly agreeable) begin their mutual training, soon competing against some 70 much more experienced men in an annual competition where Nurgaiv is not only the youngest contestant, but also the first-ever female one. Her success there is applauded by most, but grumbled over by a few who still insist a woman’s place is strictly in the home — and that she’s still no true eagle hunter until she’s mastered the more dangerous, arduous and practical task of wintertime hunting. Naturally, her maiden effort at just that comprises the pic’s last act.
It also occasions one genuinely scary if brief sequence, when Nurgaiv and her father have to force their horses through treacherous waist-high snow high in the frozen steppes. Otherwise, there’s not a lot of suspense or conflict to “The Eagle Huntress,” since our heroine seems to easily ace every challenge put before her; the psychological and physical obstacles here seem more constructs of editing (and a mostly conventional, Western orchestral score) than organic observation. The elaborate camerawork (encompassing crane and drone shots) and general high polish suggest that, if not outright manufactured in the tradition of “Nanook of the North,” much of the pic’s drama has been highly shaped by the filmmakers to fit a narrative and thematic agenda.
This is not as bothersome as it might be in a different context: “The Eagle Huntress” clearly aims from the start to spoon-feed viewers of all ages an elemental tale of empowerment. Like Disney’s “True-Life Adventures” of yore, it educates while deploying some likely sleight-of-hand, and doesn’t really invite the kind of methodological scrutiny a more verite-style documentary would. The slick package benefits, of course, from the stark and imposing landscapes of Western Mongolia.