‘Eagle Huntress’: A girl does man’s work in rousing documentary

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A Mongolian teen captures and trains a bird of prey in “The Eagle Huntress.” | SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

It sounds like it could be the plot of an animated Disney film: A young girl in an exotic land challenges tradition by training to become an eagle hunter, a role held almost exclusively by men. She then has to prove herself through a series of increasingly difficult trials to gain glory and respect, and to change hearts. Except it isn’t Disney; this heroine is real, and her name is Aisholpan.

First-time documentary filmmaker Otto Bell struck gold when he discovered Aisholpan, a nomadic child of the Mongolian steppe. The bright, determined child casts a striking profile against the bitterly beautiful landscape, where she doggedly trains a majestic eagle to hunt prey. With the exception of light narration by Daisy Ridley — a nice detail, casting the female Jedi in a film very much about girl power — Bell lets the action onscreen tell a story that’s every bit as rousing as a Disney adventure.

Eagle hunting is a tradition passed down from fathers to sons, and has survived many generations of Aisholpan’s family. Out on the barren steppe, her father trains with his stately eagle. He’s a decorated hunter, having won multiple titles at eagle hunting festivals; his yurt is festooned with prized trophies, ribbons and newspaper clippings.

His companion during the long, cold, arduous hours of training is an unlikely one: his 13-year-old daughter. She’s not supposed to be trained in the revered art, and many experienced eagle hunters voice their displeasure at this break from tradition. But Aisholpan’s family is supportive; both mother and father express the belief that a girl should have the right to choose her life. Most importantly, they want her to be happy, and nothing brings her greater joy than eagle hunting.

Then comes an important rite of passage: capturing and training her own eagle. Each hunter must have his or her own and form an intimate bond with the animal. It’s a heart-stopping task that has Aisholpan tiptoeing across a sheer rock cliff towards a nest, secured by nothing more than a rope held by her father. She earns her reward for bravery: a beautiful three-month-old female eaglet. She’s Aisholpan’s ticket to compete in the annual Golden Eagle Festival with around 70 of the world’s best hunters — all men.

And Aisholpan is still very much a little girl. During the week she attends school and bunks in a dorm room with other teenage girls. They sing songs and put pink bows in their shining black hair. Between training sessions with her fierce eaglet, she clumsily paints her nails a dainty pastel color. It adds all the more weight to her father’s pride when he proclaims, “You were as brave as any man.”

It’s a pride you feel too, watching a little girl pursue her singular dream with determination in one of the world’s most inhospitable climes. We should all rejoice in the breaking of a glass ceiling, now matter how small.

Barbara VanDenburgh, USA TODAY Network

‘The Eagle Huntress’ three and a half stars

Sony Pictures Classics presents a documentary directed by Otto Bell. Rated G. Running time: 87 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.

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