What an absolute gem. The Eagle Huntress is breathtakingly beautiful. A low budget film that has hit gold – very appropriately in the Golden Jubilee Year of the LFF.
The premise was fairly simple, the director, Otto Bell saw a photograph of the Golden Eagle Festival and decided he would like to make a film about it. On the very day that he and his tiny crew of three went out to northwest Mongolia to explore the possibilities, the family he was directed to visit was going on a eaglet hunt that very day.
Strapping cameras on to everyone who could carry them, they went into the mountains and filmed the capture of a three-month-old eagle chick. Make no mistake, this is not a small yellow fluffy thing, it is quite large and has a fearsome beak and talons. Not to mention a vigilant mother; but what makes this even more remarkable is that the young person doing the capture, a descendant of generations of Eagle Hunters, was uniquely a thirteen year old girl.
Aisholpan, the daughter of enlightened parents, was breaking a centuries old tradition. The traditional role of women in these nomadic Mongolian tribes is at home, milking the cows, bringing up the babies and feeding the men. At no time, in the history of the tribe had a woman, let alone a girl, been permitted to train an eagle.
The film crew followed and filmed the capture, filmed part of the training process and also filmed the decidedly disapproving elders, all of them ancient and venerable Eagle Hunters themselves, all of them sometime winners of the all-male Golden Eagle Competition.
This is now a world-wide event with tourists coming to watch from China and other countries. The Eagle Hunters gather at the same place every year and compete in timed trials, skill tests and horse riding. As with any competition, the judges are elders and experienced hunters and each award points up to 10 for each aspect.
Each hunter has three trials: first for handling the eagle, horse and for dress; then for a drag – the handler has to drag a hare behind the horse and the eagle, released by another member of the team, has to catch it and finally from a high point, the catcher releases the eagle on the call of the handler. Points are awarded for speed and for the landing (a fifteen kilo bird, flying at speed must land on the outstretched arm of a handler moving on a horse).
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The filming was amazing. What this small team achieved, sometimes in temperatures way below freezing, in fact so cold that the equipment could not function – limiting their options for filming to maybe three hours a day in the winter, was little short of miraculous. Though it did mean that the final part of the film, which appeared to be taking place over a single day, actually took twenty two days to film.
Whatever one may feel about the idea of drones delivering Amazon groceries, there is no doubt that they have revolutionised the low budget film. The aerial photography in The Eagle Huntress is quite magnificent. The Mongolian plains and the Altai mountains are beyond scenic and are mysterious, even possibly murderous in the winter when horses can slide and fall. This is living on the edge with winter temperatures dropping to below -50 degrees. The lives and domestic habitations are basic, but beautiful and we see them at their most vivid, in summer quarters and in winter.
There is one more showing of this film on Sunday 9th at 12:00 Vue 7 in Leicester Square – get online now and try to get tickets, failing that it has got UK distribution, achieved only a week or so ago, so look out for it.