Can you feel the force? It’s strong with this one. And if you think I’m exploiting the mojo of a multi-billion-dollar franchise to grab attention for a pipsqueak project, you’re only half right. Otto Bell’s documentary is narrated and executive-produced by Star Wars’s Rey, aka Daisy Ridley. The latter begged to be part of the film when she heard about the feats of a pig-tail-wearing Kazakh teen. That’s what Daisy does: she sticks up for the little gal.
Aisholpan has a face as round as the sun and a boiling hot smile. In her family, men train eagles to hunt foxes and rabbits. The men also enter national competitions so they can show off their skills. Aisholpan wants a piece of the action. Watched by her increasingly sweat-drenched dad, she climbs across a mountain and steals an eaglet from its nest (while its panicked mother circles above). Soon she’s communicating with the eaglet and doesn’t even flinch when its scrabbling talons connect with her arm. Next, Aisholpan heads off for the eagle-hunting championships (that no girl or woman has taken part in before).
A few things about The Eagle Huntress grate. Chunks of the score sound like Bell went on iTunes and downloaded everything labelled “Epic”. And pivotal scenes, because they feel more like slick recreations than spontaneous interactions, lack intensity. For the most part, though, Aisholpan’s journey proves tense, visually splendiferous and laugh-out-loud funny (at one point, a sombre judge declares that a contestant is having “an issue with his eagle”; this is an understatement).
It’s crucial, too, that Aisholpan’s female eaglet — bright-eyed, fast as the wind and a bit of a dunce when it comes to catching foxes — is such a commanding presence. Whether intentionally or not, that changes how you view the story. David Attenborough, in programmes such as Planet Earth II, celebrates the wild lives animals lead when they are left to themselves.
For mostly economic reasons, Aisholpan’s family think they have the right to invade an animal’s space and time. Does the fact that they only keep their eagles for seven years make them benign tyrants or environmental champions? In other words, is the bond they share with their fantastic beasts beautiful? This lovely ode to change (which gets you thinking, not just about gender but all hierarchies) contains two powerful youngsters. It should really be called Eaglet and her Girl.
Review by Charlotte O’Sullivan, The Evening Standard