A 13-year-old girl stands proud in the mountains of western Mongolia, cradling the eagle she has trained to hunt. She’s carrying on a legacy that has defined this region for centuries.
But the girl, Aisholpan Nurgaiv, is also challenging a tradition. Though she is not the first female eagle hunter—there’s evidence of female eagle hunters from as early as tenth-century Persia according to a report by Stanford University researcher Adrienne Mayor, and National Geographic photographed Princess Nirgidma of Mongolia with her hunting eagle in 1932—Nurgaiv is the first Mongolian woman to compete in the country’s Golden Eagle Festival.
These images of Nurgaiv, by photographer Asher Svidensky, went viral in 2014. Now Nurgaiv is the star of a new documentary, The Eagle Huntress, which charts her efforts to train her eagle and compete against men on a national level. The film, which is executive-produced and narrated by Star Wars star Daisy Ridley, premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is scheduled for U.S. release October 28 by Sony Pictures Classics.
Director Otto Bell chatted with National Geographic via email about following Nurgaiv and her father, Agalai, through the changing Mongolian seasons for nearly a year, his subject’s unshakeable confidence, and the challenges of strapping a GoPro to an eagle.
The film was inspired by the viral photographs. Tell me more about that.
I happened to see Asher Svidensky’s photos of Aisholpan the day they hit the Internet back in April 2014. I remember being struck by the sight of this young girl perched on a mountain casting an enormous eagle into the air. Her face, the landscape, the magnificent bird. It was like a painting.
I contacted Asher through Facebook and, as we began talking, his photos started to gain real momentum online. I saw that as a kind of proof: If we could add sound and motion, surely we would have the beginnings of a great documentary on our hands? So he and I jumped on a plane and set out to find Aisholpan and her family.
The eagle-hunting tradition in Mongolia seems to be part sport, part utility. Tell me a bit more about the role it plays in their culture.
I’d go further than that and say that this tradition is intrinsically tied to their sense of identity. It’s more than a mere pastime to these people. For the nomadic Kazakh minority of northwestern Mongolia, eagle hunting can be a big part of how they define themselves and their ancestry. There is a healthy dose of machismo mixed in there, too. We saw a correlation between how successful men are at hunting and how highly they are esteemed by their community.
Was Aisholpan already a well-known figure in the eagle hunting world when you arrived to make the film?
There are generally accepted to be only around 250 practicing eagle hunters left in the world and most of those are concentrated in Aisholpan’s corner of the Altai Mountains. So yes, word of Asher’s photos had spread by the time I arrived. That said, you could tell the community was still wrestling with how they felt about it all when we showed up with a camera. We were truly lucky to start filming while her story was still just starting to unfold.
Aisholpan is an incredibly self-assured character—she never experiences any doubt or setback over the course of the film. Where does that confidence come from, and did you have to work with her at all on how to best frame her own story?
Yes, there is a quiet steel that underpins her determination. Me and my little crew of three would be freezing in minus-50 conditions and she would just plow through knee-high drifts, carrying her 15-pound eagle like it was a walk in the park.
But it’s hard to know how much of her confidence stems from her upbringing and how much of it is just who she is. I will say the nomads of the Altai region live a fairly unforgiving outdoor lifestyle.
For all that, she’s still a 13-year-old girl in many ways. She’s self-assured, but she’s also very shy at times. Initially, she was very nervous and wouldn't talk much while we were filming—it understandably took some time for her to really relax and forget about the cameras.
Aisholpan's parents are extremely supportive of her, especially her father. Do you have any insight as to why they were so willing to break with centuries of tradition and encourage her to compete on such a big stage?
It’s important to note that Aisholpan is not the first modern Kazakh eagle huntress—that’s a fairly common mistake. An older lady from Kazakhstan named Makpal Abdrazakova preceded her in training an eagle. However, it is extremely rare, and she is the first Mongolian female to compete at the Golden Eagle Festival in Ölgii. And she’s the first woman in 12 generations of her own family line to commit to the process of becoming a master eagle hunter.
But to answer your question, I think her parents’ support is born from a combination of factors. Firstly, they saw this coming. Aisholpan’s mother, Alma, told me that her daughter was always transfixed by her father’s eagles—since she was a baby she’d exhibited an almost preternatural fascination with the birds. Secondly, there’s circumstance. When her older brother left to join the Mongolian Army, Aisholpan took on the bulk of his chores. These were often physical farm tasks, typically undertaken by the men of the tribe. From what I understand, Aisholpan parlayed these new responsibilities into time on the mountain with her dad’s eagle. He’s a fair man and a champion eagle hunter. She was doing what’s seen to be men’s work, so I think he reasoned that it was only right for her to follow her dream and take on the traditionally masculine pursuit of hunting with a golden eagle.
There's a lot of remarkable footage here, including literal eagle-eye views, and the hunting and capturing sequences in the tundra. What was your biggest challenge while filming all this wildlife in rural Mongolia?
We were a small crew—never more than four people total—but we wanted to give the documentary an expansive, cinematic feel nonetheless. We bootstrapped a lot of it: the bird's-eye view shots you mention were captured using a dog harness we refashioned to comfortably fit the eagle and carry a GoPro.
But sometimes we just had to surrender to elements beyond our control. The third act of the film takes place on a frozen tundra, deep in the mountains, close to the Mongolian border with China. We initially set aside five days to film this finale and it ended up taking 22 days. That was partly because of the incredibly harsh weather conditions, but it was largely due to the realities of working with wild animals. We really ran the gamut; the hardy ponies could be relied on to go where they were told, whereas the eagles are never truly tame and some days just didn’t want to hunt, and then lastly you have to try and triangulate these variables with the appearance of a wild fox.
This documentary seems intended for a younger audience. How does that affect your approach to filmmaking?
I agree that the film is family-friendly and carries a positive message, but I would hesitate to say it’s entirely intended for a younger audience. I think it’s rich in a lot of universal themes we can all appreciate, like female empowerment, the relationship between a father and his daughter, coming of age, and the natural world.
So I think my approach to making the film was actually determined by the chronological chain of events I witnessed rather than my having a distinct target audience in mind. I won’t spoil the film, but the path to achieving full eagle hunter status follows a fairly time-honored set of predetermined steps. So the pace and the sequences were somewhat self-selecting. We simply tried to be in place to capture the major milestones on her amazing journey to becoming a master eagle huntress.
At one point, one of the hunting elders makes a dismissive quip that Aisholpan's successes are only "for tourists." Was that a concern making this film—that it could frame her victories too much through an outsider's "tourist" perspective?
As with any community, we encountered a spectrum of opinions while we were filming. At one end, you have Agalai, Alma, and even Aisholpan’s grandfather, who see no good reason why a woman should not try her hand at this ancient tradition. Then at the other end, we met many conservative elders who balked at the very notion of a woman stepping into what has typically been a male preserve.
But you’re right, the naysayers we met were very quick to explain away Aisholpan’s success. They said it was because she was a tourist favorite, they said it was because her bird was exceptional, they said it was because her dad was a great coach, anything but her own ability. But as you see in the film, Aisholpan’s victories are unarguably based on merit alone. She is a record-breaker and she never gives up. That’s the true story we were lucky enough to witness.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Andrew Lapin is a film critic and journalist who has written for NPR, Vulture, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter.