I first time I ever heard about The Eagle Huntress was on NPR. Their film critic praised it in colorful language that hilariously mismatched his total deadpan delivery. That’s kind of all you really need to know about this documentary. It’s pleasant enough, interesting enough, scenic enough and the protagonist is badass enough to hold your interest for just long enough. It’s a delightful and informative film to spend some time with and then chuck completely, just like a drive-time news radio story that grabs your attention until you get to wherever you’re going. It’s a bit of a shame because The Eagle Huntress obviously could have been a much better documentary based on the topic alone. But a passable documentary still passes, I guess.
Directed by Otto Bell, whose Western white dudeness becomes painfully clear the few times the documentary makes the unfortunate decision to ogle its protagonist’s culture as cutesy instead of serious, The Eagle Huntress follows 13-year-old Aisholpan, a Kazakh girl determined to become the first ever eagle hunter in her community. Encouraged by her progressive father, Aisholpan quickly conquers a sport that’s been exclusively male for 2,000 years. She enters into a coveted eagle hunting competition and, you guessed it, faces the obligatory tidal wave of sexist backlash reserved for any woman better at doing “dude stuff” than dudes.
Aisholpan endures because her daily life is essentially the punchline for a Chuck Norris joke: she wakes up early to free-climb mountains and hunt freaking eagles. She’s only a teenager but already the epitome of badass, and seeing her face some pretty sadistic sexism without flinching is always refreshing. Given time and Netflix, it’s not hard to imagine Aisholpan becoming a feminist icon in cinema. The entire feminist arc of The Eagle Huntress is wholly satisfying, but Bell completely disservices another huge aspect of the film and Aisholpan.
Sometimes Bell tries to push the idea that Aisholpan is a strong person despite her culture and not necessarily because of it, which is hard to buy. Especially since she’s competing in one of her country’s oldest sports, I can’t picture the Aisholpan I was introduced to in The Eagle Huntress agreeing with that message at all. In fact, most explorations into the intricacies of her culture feel cheap and underdeveloped. Bell seems less respectful of the culture and more hung up on what he thinks are “cute” quirks. It’s actually fascinating how Bell must have spent months embedded with Aisholpan’s family and still walked away with a seemingly tone-deaf, Western-centric view of the experience.
I suppose that’s just another way The Eagle Huntress is similar to an NPR news story: the way it can be super progressive and thoughtful in one direction, and totally clueless in another. Add the squeaky clean, unchallenging presentation that never strives to be anything more than a “by the numbers” inspirational heart-warmer with a just enough striking facts you’ll want to repeat to your friends and you’ve got your movie. It’s basic…but it’s good and it’ll get you through the day.
Grade = B-