“The Eagle Huntress”: A New Look on an Age-Old Tradition

The Eagle Huntress
by Vicky Lou

The 2016 documentary, “The Eagle Huntress,” starts out panning across vast, snowy mountains and rigid hilltops. Here, viewers get their first look into the profession the entire film is based on—the traditional Kazakh profession of eagle hunting. An older man, dressed in layers of intricately embroidered clothing, climbs to the base of a mountain. He sets a dead lamb down in front of his eagle. He says his goodbyes to the eagle and climbs back onto his horse to ride away.

Aisholpan Nurgaiv is a teenage Kazakh girl who lives with her family in yurts, the traditional housing of Kazakh people. She goes to school during the week, and on weekends, she and her father train her eagle.  

A tradition often passed from father to son, eagle hunting—when one trains an eagle to capture prey and then releases the eagle after seven years—brings food to the family and, in many cases, is vital to a nomadic family’s survival.

Much to the chagrin of many traditional Kazakh men in the film, Nurgaiv is passionate about eagle hunting. As a 13-year-old girl, many people say she should not have anything to do with eagle hunting because women should instead learn how to cook and serve a family. Nurgaiv’s parents don’t share this mindset. They just want her to be happy no matter which life path she chooses.

Nurgaiv is the first girl to enter—and win—the annual Golden Eagle Festival, a Mongolian festival in which eagle hunters compete with their peers. As shown in the documentary through radio announcements, the festival is a highly anticipated event, where eagle hunters can take the profession they work on all year long and show off their skills to others.

The cameramen followed Nurgaiv throughout her daily life, documented her win at the festival, and finally, recorded the last test to determine her validity of being an eagle huntress—whether or not her eagle could catch prey in the wild.

The cameras are present at personal moments—family dinners full of laughter and chatter, mornings spent getting ready at the dorm rooms of Nurgaiv’s school, where she lives five days a week, or Nurgaiv’s dangerous experience capturing her eagle. We see her as she slides down a rocky cliff and onto the steep ledge where the baby eagle is resting.

The cameras are also there at pivotal moments in her life, like when she wins the Golden Eagle Festival and everyone is cheering and crying or when she makes a big trek into the snowy mountains to capture prey. The film gives viewers a lens into Kazakh life and lets us develop a kinship with Nurgaiv’s community.

The film depicts members of Nurgaiv’s community going about their daily lives, often through conversations spoken in Kazakh with subtitles displayed on the screen. “The Eagle Huntress” isn’t like a traditional documentary with many one-on-one interviews. There are only a few interviews, and even then, they are short and have a specific purpose.

There are five older men the film keeps going back to, before and after Nurgaiv wins the festival. They talk about her place at home and how they don’t consider her to be a real eagle huntress.

Throughout the film, Nurgaiv experiences discrimination like this. As part of the festival, competitions are judged by appearance. Her dad states that she needs to be even more aware of her appearance and hold herself better than any of the other competitors, all of whom are grown men, because she is already at a disadvantage—she’s a girl.

The film never directly talks about the patriarchal situation leading to Nurgaiv’s disadvantages, but instead illustrates it through the actions of the people in the documentary. Viewers see a direct contrast between Nurgaiv’s feminist parents who want Nurgaiv to achieve anything she wants and the old men, who are set in the tradition of women staying home to cook.  

Nurgaiv did not enter and win the festival to prove a point about feminism. However, Nurgaiv unknowingly inspired generations of girls when she stood proudly on her horse and turned her head at the heckling crowd. She inspired generations of girls when she just laughed off the men telling her she wasn’t a real eagle hunter. “The Eagle Huntress” brings attention to the power of young girls to change the future of females, a task Nurgaiv starts.

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