For centuries, nomadic huntsmen high in the cold Mongolian mountains of Altai would climb steep crags, gingerly approach an eagle’s nest, capture a baby eaglet and train it to kill foxes for fur and food. For seven years the bird would serve its master and then be released back to the wild.
The cycle was a clan tradition reserved solely for the men of the house, but no longer. This well-crafted girl-power documentary, lightly narrated by our new “Star Wars” heroine Daisy Ridley, gives us a portrait of a 13-year-old Mongolian charmer who became the first female to enter the national hawk-hunting competition — and won.
This is a wonderfully realistic film. The narrative is simple, almost obvious to a fault. With the encouragement and guidance of her father, young Aisholpan learns the family tradition through doing. She is an impressive person, confident in her abilities without a bit of hotshot pride, interested in modifying cultural traditions without discarding them overall.
Director Otto Bell gives us a visually dazzling guided tour of her lifestyle and region, which looks exotic and hometown-familiar at the same time. The elder men interviewed throughout the film, smiling skeptically at the idea that a schoolgirl could contend in their championship, might be wearing fur hats and embroidered coats, but they are familiar types in any old coffee shop. A child? A girl? Balderdash!
There is a bit of gentle dramatic tension. Scenes where we follow her horse rides with her father across panoramic tundra, her first attempts at fox hunts and her competitive matches with grown-up male rivals at the annual games effectively trigger nail biting and sighs of relief.
There’s also an intriguing balancing act between the film’s celebration of feminist progress and its representation of several animals being pierced with sharp, pointed talons and eaten slice by bloody slice.
The central focus, however, is a genuine prizewinner. Aisholpan is very winning, to the point that I suspect her “come back to my arm” cry to her new pet, a warbling “Hooookaaaaa,” will be repeated by a lot of young viewers.