Back in 1922, Robert J. Flaherty made the controversial documentary/docudrama "Nanook of the North," which he purported to be a nonfiction account of an Inuit hunter, but which included untruths, distortions and staged sequences. Now in 2016, we have Otto Bell's "The Eagle Huntress," a Disney-esque documentary bucking for awards and a big box office draw by creating an appealing story against an exotic backdrop.
"The Eagle Huntress" essays the accomplishments of 13-year-old Aisholpan, framed by Bell as having a dream of being the first eagle huntress in Mongolia. The 2,000-year Kazakh tradition of eagle hunting remains male-dominated, making Aisholpan an outlier and, one might assume, a long shot as a competitor in the annual Golden Eagle Festival. With the full support of her family (dad and granddad are both eagle hunters), Aisholpan collects a female golden eaglet, trains her, competes in the festival and, for an encore, goes "eagle hunting" for a fox in the wintry wilds of the Mongolian steppe.
All of the above is more or less true, and certainly makes for a commercially appealing story. Pop documentarian Morgan Spurlock and "Star Wars" star Daisy Ridley came on board as executive producers (Ridley also recorded five minutes of narration), the film sold to Sony Pictures Classics at the Sundance Film Festival, and chart-topping pop star Sia recorded original song "Angel by the Wings" for the end credits. Oscars, here we come!
Taken at face value, "The Eagle Huntress" seems to be a fine starter documentary for kids. With its G-rating and politically correct feminism, it's a family friendly, nature-themed adventure to empower girls and school boys about girl power. Unfortunately, even seen outside of any larger context, "The Eagle Huntress" smells a bit fishy. The film's interviews seem coached to give Bell the sound bites he wants (says Dad, "She is a strong and courageous girl" and her eagle "a strong bird...it matches Aisholpan"), and certain situations or bits of dialogue feel constructed.
Those feelings are easy enough to shake off since Aisholpan makes such an impressive and sunny heroine, and the doc about her is so slick. But the narrative of Aisholpan and her supportive family struggling against closed-minded tradition misleads, and Bell sweeps under the rug any inconvenient truths that challenge his story. A little research shows that Bell had to reach far to find the harrumphing elders he depicts as clinging to rigid gender roles. The film willfully ignores the similar story of female eagle hunter Makpal Abdrazakova, and completely leaves out that Aisholpan's tutelage as an eagle hunter was suggested to her family by photographer Asher Svidensky as part of an "art project."
Stanford University's own professor Adrienne Mayor recently weighed in with her essay "The Eagle Huntress: Ancient Traditions and New Generations," and Canadian researcher Meghan Fitz-James has vigorously investigated and reported Bell's unethical practices (all of the above can be found online). The well-packaged "Eagle Huntress" boasts gorgeous photography and an appealing story of can-do spirit, but as a documentary, it's only marginally more credible than "Nanook of the North." So have we really come a long way, baby?