On Tuesday, over 200 middle school students filed into the Redstone Cinema in Park City for a special screening of “The Eagle Huntress,” just a day removed from the film’s triumphant premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Its 13-year-old star Aisholpan had traveled over 6000 miles from her native Mongolia, though she didn’t ever have to feel she was too far away from home since the film’s Utah-based executive producer Geralyn Dreyfous had a yurt (a facsimile of the tent that Aisholpan lives in during the summer) built at the Kimball Art Center and Comanche elders bring their eagles for the teenager to demonstrate her considerable falconry abilities. If that didn’t do the trick, then there was the response to the film.
“They had to enforce a crowd control, because all of the young kids wanted selfies with her,” said the film’s director Otto Bell with delight, still basking in overwhelming enthusiasm. “Kids get a bad rap. At the moment, they’re [called] the ADHD generation and [said to be unable to] watch anything longer than a YouTube clip, but these 200 middle schoolerswere transfixed and at the end, they gave me some of the most intelligent questions that I’ve had all week about the film.”
The 34-year-old Bell has learned over the past few years not to underestimate those half his age and younger. After being struck by a photo of Asholpan he found online as part of a photo essay by Asher Svidensky, the New York-based, British-born filmmaker thought nothing of booking a flight to the Altai Mountains of Mongolia so he could meet the young girl and her family in person, taken with the stoicism of the teenager who bucked over 2000 years of tradition as the first female on record to become an Eagle Huntress. Bell’s timing couldn’t have been better considering that mere hours into his first visit, Aisholpan would select the eagle that she would train, but over the following year, the filmmaker would return to witness she and the bird bond to the point that she could enter the same Eagle Festival tournament that her father was known to win and eventually strike out on her own in the wilderness to help collect fur pelts and food for the family.
As much as it was a time of great growth for the young woman, “The Eagle Huntress” also allowed Bell, who honed his craft as a creative director of branded content for the ad firm Ogilvy, to spread his wings as well, making his first film at an epic scope worthy of its subject, showcasing all the natural beauty of the snow-capped Altai peaks as well as the relationships between Aisholpan and her family that allow her to thrive. Yet he also captures the tender, more intimate tale of someone finding the strength to carry the responsibility of being the eldest in her family and the first of her gender to be an Eagle Hunter against much opposition within her community. Shortly after the premiere of “The Eagle Huntress,” Bell spoke of the challenges involved in bringing Aisholpan’s journey to the screen, how the film evolved throughout shooting and sitting with Aisholpan as she saw herself on the big screen.
If this is your first time making a feature, what made you think there was enough here to make when you first learned of this?
The truth of the matter is I didn’t know if it was going to be a 10-minute film, or one of those 40-minute shorts that you put into festivals. I certainly didn’t think when I stepped out that it was going to run to feature-length, but things kept on happening. I got the rare privilege of stumbling in at the start of chain of events. Often times you’re forced to tell, as a documentarian, you’re forced to tell stories in retrospect and you have to go fill in blanks because you got to the party a little late. In this case, the first day of filming wasn’t supposed to be the first day of filming. It just so happened that that was the perfect day for her to steal the eagle from the nest and start her journey to becoming a full eagle hunter.
Literally, every time we went back, things kept happening. Honestly, I was ready to pack up and go home to the edit room [after] the festival. I was standing in the crowd crying my eyes out, thinking, “Well hell, there’s no better finish to a film than this, we’ve done it!” Then I wanted to get some reactions, so I went and spoke to those elders, the naysayers, and that’s when they threw down this fresh gauntlet, like, “Well, the festival is one thing. She definitely can’t do is go out and hunt in winter. She won’t survive that, women are too fragile, they’re too weak.” Yadda yadda yadda.
At that point, I was totally out of money – all my credit cards were maxed out – and I got home, and I called Morgan Spurlock and showed him what I had. He was like, “Look, I’ve never seen anything like this. How can I help you formalize what you’re doing?” He brought in financing, and professionalized my little operation, so we were able to go back and film the third act, which really took us into that feature-length territory. But I still don’t know how we got there.[laughs]
You have talked about how you build the film around three peaks – the capture of the eagle, the festival, and the hunt – did you at least identify early on how this story would have a narrative to it?
As I was filming, I was learning more and more about eagle hunting and what the milestones of becoming a fully fledged eagle hunter are – what it involves and what the major steps are. The first step is obviously to steal a baby eagle from the nest, and the next thing is to build a bond with the eagle that you have taken. Then the way that you graduate the full eagle hunter status is you have to take that same bird out into the mountains, in those vicious winters that you saw and you’ve got to successfully hunt with the bird that you’ve bonded with.
Honestly, I was less interested in her becoming a full eagle hunter than I was to see how she would get on at the festival and things like that, but it evolved as the year went on and these grumpy old men were like, “Well, you know …” They revealed it to me – I wasn’t really fully aware that to go out and successfully hunt with your bird was a necessary final step, so it was one of those make or break moments that was like, “Oh God, I thought I finished this thing, and now there’s a whole other challenge that we’ve got to go through.” Little did I know that it was something that her father was aware of as well, and that she was desperate to do anyway, so it all made sense. It became the third peak in the film basically as we were in production.
The actual capture of the eagle is expertly handled and well-covered, which makes it impossible to believe it happened the first afternoon you were there. Did you actually bring a full crew with you?
No, no, no. On that occasion, there were three of us, and I never went there with more than five people. Towards the end we added the luxury of a sound man and a producer, can you imagine? [laughs] But that first occasion, there was me, Chris Raymond, who has an additional camera credit, and then Asher Svidensky, the still photographer who took the original photos that I saw online in the photo essay that inspired me [to make the film]. But he had never shot video before.
It was a crazy experience filming that sequence. The whole sequence took about 30 minutes, and there aren’t any retakes, like “Oh, could you just put that eaglet back?” When you’ve got a mother circling overhead, it lights the fire under production, so we really had to observe them and just let them do their thing. That’s why it’s great working with Nurgaiv, who has been doing this for decades. He’s a two-time world champion eagle hunter and he’s got a pretty good sense of how things are going to go down, so working really closely with him through my translator, we scrambled that day and we grabbed everything that we could.
I had a GoPro at the bottom of my rucksack, which I taped to [Aisholpan] so we could get those point of view shots when she gets inside [the nest with] the eagle. Then we have a T300, but my cameraman was a bit scared of heights, so I had to plant him on the ground to get the wide shot of the cliff side, and then me and Asher took his pretty beat up Canon 1D DSLR and we nearly killed ourselves actually climbing onto this little ledge so that we could get the lateral view on the nest. He had never shot video, so I was whispering at him, “Just keep it steady, you know how to hold focus. You can do this” as this little girl in pigtails is climbing down this cliffside into the nest. We just had to keep turning and shooting because it was obviously a one-shot deal. This was our first day filming. If I could do it again, there’s things that I would tinker with, but I quite like the rawness of what we captured that Thursday.
In general, how much patience was required during this?
The winter sequence when they’re out hunting required enormous patience because everything takes four times as long when you film in those minus-50 conditions. Batteries give up the ghost in no time at all – all your equipment breaks. Everything moves more slowly. The idea of trying to find wild foxes and have cameras in the right position, and mix that with a young girl and a young eagle – put it this way, we were supposed to film for five days and we ended up staying for 22 because there were so many factors that we needed to work in unison for us to get the final sequence which you saw. So there was a great deal of patience at times, but then also like with the steal, you just have to move quickly and cover it from as many angles as humanly possible to have options in the edit room.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, one of my favorite scenes in the film also is the nail painting scene that reminds that Aisholpan is still a young girl. Was easy to find those moments and locate them in the larger story?
It was something I definitely wanted to make sure was felt, because she is a bad ass and she has this steely determination, but when I was camping out at school with her or watching her ice skating with her friends, I noticed there is definitely a real femininity to her, and I had to remind myself a lot she is just a 13-year-old girl. I thought if that’s striking me, then I should make sure that that bubbles up through the film, too.
The nail painting scene [made it in] actually because my girlfriend had seen some of the stuff from the first visit where Aisholpan, you’ll notice when she’s doing the eagle steal, had really chipped purple nail polish on, so my girlfriend saw that in the rough cut and she sent me back with a bunch of purple nail polishes to restock Aisholpan’s makeup closet. [laughs] It was nice to balance out this Khaleesi, mother of dragons/epic hero, with reminders that she’s just a girl as well. Those scenes where she’s in the dorm with all her girlfriends chatting away about her bird, the ice skating, and then where she goes into that women’s store and tries on some of her hair bows yet she’s dressed in her full hunting gear – they’re all important reminders that we’re dealing with a very elegant young lady.
It’s briefly touched on in the film, but besides being Aisholpan being his daughter, did you get a sense of why Nurgaiv was more progressive than other eagle hunters in letting her hunt eagles?
Yeah, over time she has proved herself in her father’s eyes. He actually has an older son who he was training to become an eagle hunter – and this isn’t in the film because it was [extraneous] – but the older son was constricted to the Mongolian Army. They love eagle hunters because they are known for being tough and self-sufficient, so the son had vanished off to the army, and that left Asholpan being the oldest child at their home and she had to pick up a lot of her older brother’s slack in terms of duties and as you see in the film, she had always been fascinated by eagles.
Quite candidly of her, she was like, “Well, Dad, I’m doing all my brother’s work. Why can’t I hang out with the eagles and you can teach me a few things just like you were teaching him?” To his credit, he saw no reason not to and that’s when Asher, the still photographer stumbled upon him, and took the picture of her that I saw that inspired this whole thing. She was just starting to get a feel for the eagle hunting lifestyle at that point, and she was training with her dad’s eagle.
When we came back a couple of months later after the release of the photos, that’s when he was like, “She seems serious about this, so we’re going to go and steal her her own eagle so that they can train and grow together.”
What was the Sundance premiere of this like for you?
Oh my word. The standing ovations were really nice – it really solidified that we have something special on our hands here. We only started showing this to people a couple of weeks ago. The first person was Sia, who sat down and wrote and recorded that beautiful song for us, “Angel by the Wings.” Then we showed it to Daisy Ridley, and she was all over herself to try and get involved, and came on as an executive producer. When the audience [at Sundance] saw it and they were cheering spontaneously halfway through, it was just incredible to see it play so well, but what was really satisfying was to see the family [watch it] because they had never seen the full film before. I would take out my beaten up iPad and show them little sequences as we continued to build the film, but they’d never seen the full thing, so to see them crying and laughing, and enjoying it, because I sat next to Aisholpan, was just wonderful. Squeezing her hand, and seeing how happy she was, was remarkable. I’ll never forget that as long as I live. It’s my first film, and seeing her respond that way, it was magical for me.