Monday, 12 December 2016

Bird's-eye view: "The Eagle Huntress"

Among the nomadic people of the Altai mountains separating Central and East Asia, certain traditions have had to be upheld so as to survive the region's long, harsh winters. One of these involves the men of the tribe capturing an eagle, then training it so as to catch those small creatures that give forth meat to eat and pelts to wear and trade; after seven years, the men grant the bird its freedom, maintaining the circularity of life, and strive to pass on their hunting knowledge to their sons and heirs. Early on in the British director Otto Bell's new doc The Eagle Huntress, we learn how this process has caught the eye of Aisholpan, a combative, ruddy-cheeked girl in her pre-teens whose open-minded father has started to divert his wisdom to her, rather than his far younger male progeny. Enter the tribal elders, who clear their throats and begin harrumphing. "Girls do not go eagle-hunting," these old duffers insist. "Women are weaker and more fragile. They get cold." What ensues, over the next eighty minutes, will be the learning of lessons, and the opening up of new frontiers.

Bell's film isn't passing into unexplored cinematic territory: Aisholpan and her clan exist in the same timezone as the crowdpleasing ethnography of 2003's The Story of the Weeping Camel and - more fantastic beasts - Ben Hopkins' Kyrgyzstan diversion 37 Uses for a Dead Sheep. (The ovine polo game showcased in that film recurs here.) The advantage that Bell has is the process of eagle hunting itself, an extraordinary sight to behold right from the early, health-and-safety defying sequence that finds Aisholpan edging down a sheer rockface, crashing into the understandably perturbed bird's nest, and either distracting or hypnotising it with a hand before lassoing and making off with it. Equally striking is the growing intimacy between child and bird, which unfolds somewhat like a Kes of the mountains: she feeds it strips of meat first wrapped around a stick, then eventually with her fingers, reward for seemingly long afternoons in the cold learning to hold, catch and let go.

This rich observational material has been organised in conventional fashion. Daisy Ridley's voiceover suggests Bell wasn't always confident in what his own images were communicating; a tinkly-sentimental piano score keeps threatening to break into Oleta Adams' "Get Here" (and segues all too readily into Sia's on-the-nose closing-credits song "Angel by the Wings": "Fly on the eagle's wing/You can do anything"); and narratively, we're destined for the first ever competitive eagle hunt to feature a female participant. You feel a remarkable story has been tailored to fit an internationally saleable template, the unfamiliar being translated into the more directly graspable. (That savvy operator Morgan Spurlock appears among the producer credits.) It is, still, remarkable and involving viewing: you can't miss the pride of Aisholpan's family as they wave her off to the competition, nor the evident love of this father for his daughter, as heartening, in its own way, as the majestic swoop of the eagle itself as it approaches its targets. That spectacle, as it has done in the grounds of stately homes through the ages, should be enough to glue antsy youngsters to the spot in wonderment - but, while they're there, they might also learn a thing or two: how other cultures live, what girls can do, perhaps even how to watch, maybe love, a predominantly subtitled movie.

The Eagle Huntress opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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