The steppes of western Mongolia are a traditional place, many of them so old that all knowledge has been lost of their original. Among them is the practice of the "qusbegi," or "lord of birds" - taming and hunting with a bird of prey.
For his debut feature film, the British documentary director Otto Bell tells the story of Aisholpan, a teenage girl determined to become the first female eagle hunter in the history of her family. The Eagle Huntress tracks her from training with her father to her participation in the Golden Eagle Festival, climaxing with the notoriously difficult trial of hunting a fox in winter. It examines the conservatism of Aisholpan's elderly peers, many of whom are vehemently opposed to a female encroaching on their territory.
The Eagle Huntress is narrated by Daisy Ridley, the star of the new Star Wars trilogy. Ridley produced the feature alongside Morgan Spurlock, famed for his fast food documentary Super Size Me. Bell, who previously created current affairs documentaries and programs for the BBC, shot the film with a tiny crew of three. We asked him about its challenges and why he committed his life to Aisholpan's story.
Let's start at the beginning: what was the genesis of the documentary?
Asher Svidensky, this young Israeli photographer, had stumbled onto Aisholpan in the Altai mountains of north-west Mongolia. And she was training with her dad's eagle at the time, and took these incredible photos. The BBC picked up his photographs, and did a short write up about it, and posted it, and I was lucky enough to see the photographs the day that they came out.
I was spellbound by them - they were so beautiful, and had all elements for a great film. A beautiful location, this kind of prehistoric bird – I mean they're the biggest golden eagles in the world, they have an eight foot wingspan, they're like dinosaurs. And then of course the picture also had Aisholpan in it, and she is beautiful and angelic, but also very strong, very determined and focused. Just a 13-year old girl in a lot of ways, but also she has this sort of duality to her character.
She loves to win, actually, whether she's wrestling boys or playing chequers or hunting with the eagle; she's hell-bent on winning. So I saw these photographs and I found Asher on Facebook, looked him up and stalked him. I contacted him, we had a Skype, and very quickly we were on a plane together to Mongolia.
How did you then get access to Mongolia and to the family?
Though Asher. He had made friends with them and had a guide head out and tell them that we were coming. And literally the day that we arrived, I was sitting in their ger [yurt] having tea. And the father, Agalai, he stood up and said – I had been sort of floating the idea – and he goes to me and says, ‘we're going to steal in eagle this afternoon, from the mountains. Is that the sort of thing you'd like to film?’ I wasn't necessarily ready, but we had to gear up. That sequence was shot in one take, 12 minutes, three angles. And that became the centrepiece of our first act.
What's lovely about it is, so often in documents you're filling in a blank: something has happened to occasion the need for a documentary. You arrive as a filmmaker and you're like, ‘let's talk about why this has come about. Let's use archive, and use a talking head interview to fill in a blank that we've missed.’ It's so rare, I think, that you're there for the first step – and stealing an eagle from a nest is the first step of being an eagle hunter. And that's what lends the film a fairy tale-esque quality, because we were there at the beginning, and we captured every step along the way.
The film was dictated, then, by Aisholpan's journey rather than a pre-determined narrative?
That's the thing. I made the film with three people and my life's savings, $80,000. And actually went into debt for another $12,000 with the bank – I'd never been in debt before. But a lot of that was because I was beholden to this girl's coming of age. She was damn well going to attend the festival and I had to be there to capture that. She was damn well going to go hunting with her father. So in many ways Aisholpan dictated the production schedule. I didn't have much time to find financing
Given how many people it often takes to set up shots in many documentaries involving animals - David Attenborough TV series, for instance – it's quite an remarkable feat that you captured the hunting scenes with such a small crew.
Well, Simon's a pioneer of drone photography. He built me this fantastic 9m crane that folded away into a snowboard bag, and weights about 25kg. So we were ragtag and on a shoestring, but there was a lot of ingenuity. We would rope open the door of our Russian van, and hold the Ronin [a brand of gimbal, which allows the rotation of a camera] inside the side door, and that's how we would get all of our tracking shots. We were constantly making it work.
What really saved us, though, was Agalai – he was the ultimate location manager. His understanding of the landscape, and his preternatural ability to track wildlife and to understand the dynamics of how things work out there is second to none. He would often point, and say something like 'if there's anything in this ravine back here, you're probably going to want to be here if I flush something.' If it hadn't have been for him, we would probably still be out there looking for a fox.
So the skills demanded by hunting with eagles are transferred to the skill of finding locations.
Oh, I think understanding what is likely to happen, and how the wildlife – and truly wild life – is going to react and move was crucial. I remember this one time we woke up, and we were a horse down. We got in the van, and he kept pointing and course correcting. We must have driven for about half an hour. And then we just found the horse. It wasn't by a watering hole, it wasn't by a landmark. It's amazing.
It seems rather progressive of Agalai to train his daughter, rather than a son, in this typically male tradition.
He's an open-minded man. I don't think he's a crusading feminist per se, but to his credit he couldn't see a reason why not. She was doing a lot of what are traditionally deemed to be a man's chores - helping with the herding, hunting for rabbits - and she'd always been transfixed by the eagles. Her mother talks about how she would crawl over to the eagle as a baby. She's always been fascinated by them; he didn't see a reason why not. So it's sort of progressive in its own right – she was equal enough in his mind that he embraced the idea. And then it became greater and greater and greater, and took on a lot of import.
Is eagle hunting now a largely traditional act, or does it have a utilitarian aspect too?
It's more than a sport, more than a pastime. It has an almost spiritual kind of importance. It's not so much about sustenance now, or sufficiency – although nothing is wasted, and they do use the fox furs throughout winter, because it is profoundly cold and its the furs that save them. So it is still useful. But it's really how they define themselves. It's intrinsically tied to self their identity. It's very much part of their sense of masculinity and how they define themselves in the world.
After all the financial and physical difficulties, The Eagle Huntress was picked up by [major documentary producer] Stacey Reiss, with Daisy Ridley as narrator and executive producer alongside Morgan Spurlock. All this, and Sia created a song specially for the credits. How did all this come about?
I was out of money, and in debt, about two-thirds of the day through. Aisholpan had just performed incredibly well at the eagle festival, and broken a record, it was amazing So I cut together the first ten minutes of the eagle steal, and I cheekily emailed it to Morgan Spurlock. To his credit - and I'd never met him, I just had his email, a friend of mine gave it to me and he was the most famous person I could contact – but to his credit he called me back that afternoon and said 'I've never seen anything like this, how can I help you?' And it was like the cloud parted.
Overnight, he introduced to financiers, he got me a place to edit, he introduced me to Stacey, to Sharon [Chang, co-producer]. He professionalised my whole operation, and he taught me that there is no kind of heroism in trying to make a film on your own. And these roles, this shield wall of people around a film, exist for good reason. Gis machine includes CCA [Creative Arts Agency], so when it became time to sell the film at Sundance, I could plug into that operation. And they in turn showed the film to their client Daisy Ridley – not with an agenda, just because they thought she'd like it. And she called and said 'I've never seen anything like this, how can I help?'
Morgan and I would butt heads, we'd fight in a constructive way. We were fighting about music. He wanted something really poppy and I wanted something more impressionist, and we were rowing and he went 'so, who do you want to do the music?' And I said 'I want Sia, Morgan,' just to sort of close down the argument. And, bugger me, three weeks later he brought me into his office and he played 'Angel by the Wings,' and we both cried.