‘The Eagle Huntress’
Director: Otto Bell
3 (out of 5) Globes
If you’re feeling cynical, you could describe “The Eagle Huntress” as cynical, too — a documentary with a simple four-part formula to attract people who might not usually go for a movie about a young girl from Mongolia who likes eagles. It’s a handsome travelogue in the National Geographic vein, which never goes out of style. It’s feminist, which is currently in style. It eventually turns into a competition doc, which were popular a decade ago. And it can later be plundered for animal gifs, gaining an afterlife on Facebook feeds and listicles thanks to its bevy of cute eagle action. Throw in too sporadic narration from Daisy Ridley that exists solely to put her name on the poster, and one could argue the filmmakers are less interested in learning about the Kazakh people than in reshaping their lives into narratives and ideas that already interest them.
Then again, “The Eagle Huntress” is too nice to be seen as mere calculation. It hangs with Aisholpan Nurgaiv, a strong-but-silent teenager from a Kazakh tribe who has challenged the old, patriarchal order by proving herself a natural at hunting eagles. She never flinches when a 15-pound bird swoops onto her arm, much to the dismay of the elder male hunters, who consider her a kind of abomination. The filmmakers keep things simple — perhaps too simple — by following her as she finds her eagle, trains it then shows her stuff in a festival, where her appearance ruffles more feathers than usual.
Aisholpan’s story becomes part observational documentary, part folk tale about a girl who proves herself. Deep down it’s not dissimilar from a Robert Flaherty film; the godfather of the documentary would journey to far flung pockets of the world, returning with a movie designed to both wow and flatter audiences. Flaherty went further than the makers of “The Eagle Huntress” ever do; with “Nanook of the North,” he asked his Inuk subject to hunt in ways his kind hadn’t done in generations, and he demanded similar tasks of Irish fishermen in “Man of Aran.” “The Eagle Huntress” sticks with merely whittling its footage into something palatable and relatable or at least pretty to Western viewers — an inspirational tale that keeps things generalized, complete with a closing credits ballad by Sia. But there we go being cynical again.