The Below the Line Screening Series presented a screening of the documentary The Eagle Huntress on October 17 at the Arclight Cinemas in Sherman Oaks. The screening was followed by a Q & A panel with director Otto Bell, thirteen-year-old eagle huntress Aisholpan Nurgaiv and her father Nurgaiv Rys.
The Eagle Huntress follows Aisholpan as she acquires her young eagle to train and progresses through her eventual stunning victory as the first woman to compete in the Golden Eagle Festival in Olgii, going up against 70 veteran eagle hunters.
Bell explained the luck and serendipity that followed from the first time he saw still photos of Aisholpan on the BBC and was convinced her story would make a great film. He contacted Israeli still photographer Asher Svidensky via Facebook and began a discussion with him that eventually led to he, Svidensky and cameraman Chris Raymond flying to Mongolia to meet with Aisholpan and her father in hopes of getting something going for the film.
As their luck would have it, once they had a chance to meet, Rys explained that he and Aisholpan were going to steal an eaglet for her to train and asked if they wanted to film it. Aisholpan, at this point, thought that Bell and his friends were just like some of the other tourists who like to visit and film the eagle hunters, but to Bell it was an amazing and daunting prospect. They couldn’t afford to miss the opportunity, but they were woefully unprepared. They had a Canon C300 Mark I, Svidensky’s DSLR and a tiny Go-Pro, along with his Zoom sound recorder.
With Raymond below, Bell and Svidensky climbed the cliffs to the side of the eagle’s nest to film the daring raid. The whole segment is compelling and beautiful and was enough to come up with a 10-minute trailer that Bell ending up sending to Morgan Spurlock, who called him the next day with an enthusiastic support that led to them putting together the team that eventually completed the film.
Bell said that the final part of the film, where Aisholpan and her father go on an actual hunt, was the hardest part to shoot. The schedule was originally set for 5 days and ended up going 22 days instead. The temperatures sometimes reached 50 degrees below zero and they had to wait for more balmy temperatures, in the minus 20’s, before they could use the equipment.
“It was hard to complain about the cold when a 13-year-old girl was dragging her horse through snow drifts without complaint!” said Bell.
Bell, who had never made a full-length film prior to this, but made several short films said: “All my films were intimate portraits of everyday people.” He has indeed made a film that is both an intimate portrait of a young girl doing an extraordinary thing and one that captures the wild beauty of the Mongolian steppes.