In the documentary “The Eagle Huntress,” Nurgaiv Aisholpan, a 13-year-old Kazakh girl in Mongolia, counters centuries of male-dominated tradition to pursue her dream of participating in the honored ritual of eagle hunting.
Directed by Otto Bell, the visually beautiful film charmed critics and audiences at the Sundance Film Festival and gained collaborators such as narrator and executive producer Daisy Ridley, executive producer Morgan Spurlock and singer Sia with its tale of female empowerment and visual splendor.
Eagle hunting is not the hunting of eagles but rather hunting with eagles, using the majestic birds to catch prey such as rabbits, marmots and foxes.
No longer a necessity for survival, the activity is viewed as a culturally important sport or art form among the people of the Eurasian Steppe.
Twelve generations of Aisholpan’s family have been eagle hunters, and her father, Nurgaiv, can name each of the ancestors _ all men. Closely related to falconry, which dates to the third century, eagle hunting is passed down, typically from father to son, among the Kazakh and Kyrgz people.
In Kazakh, the word for “eagle” is burkit, and the hunter is called a burkitshi. The hunters use golden eagles capable of reaching speeds rivaling a Formula I race car. The burkitshi don’t always name their birds, but Aisholpan dubbed hers “White Wings.”
At a photo shoot in September in Beverly Hills, an eagle used for film and TV was brought in so that Aisholpan could demonstrate her avian-handling skills. This bird was only 6 pounds, less than half the size of White Wings, who remained back in Mongolia, yet it still looked as though it could soar out the window and easily pluck a poodle off Doheny Drive.