Sundance film "Eagle Huntress" will give kids reasons to soar
Sometimes, in the blink of an eye, an as-yet-unmade film will suddenly unspool in a filmmaker’s imagination. Otto Bell experienced that moment the first time he saw Asher Svidensky’s photographs of Aisholpan.
In one of the photos aired on BBC, a 13-year-old Mongolian girl joyously releases a full-grown eagle high atop a vast mountainous landscape.
"That photo really captured the public’s imagination. It spread far and wide and I thought, if just a picture of her is inspiring people to this degree, then what about when we introduce sight and sound and motion?"
In an interview prior to the opening of the Sundance Film Festival, where his feature-length documentary "The Eagle Huntress" will premiere, Bell said he is eager to share her story.
"I am proud that it is the first documentary to be screened in the Kids category. That is a real honor. I hope children and parents are moved by what they see," he said.
According to Bell, making the film was a genuine adventure.
"I contacted Asher and we jumped on a plane to meet her and her family, to float the idea of possibly making a documentary together. We were in their ger (the Mongolian term for a yurt) and Dad just jumped up and said, ‘We were just going to go out and steal a baby eagle for Aisholpan, is that the sort of thing you’d like to film?’"
They did not hesitate.
"Fortunately, we cobbled together the cameras we brought with us and that is how the six trips went."
Over the following year Bell and a tight-knit film crew followed Aisholpan’s progress as she mastered the 2,000-year-old art of training eagles to hunt for game in the barren Altai Mountains along the border of Mongolia and China.
Just getting to the location was a challenge that required transporting about 700 kilos of gear from Russia or Korea to the county’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, then via twin-prop planes to the mountains, followed by a rough 2-4 hour drive to wherever Aisholpan’s nomadic family happened to be camped.
"There were plenty of times when we weren’t sure whether the planes were going to be able to take off because we had them so fully loaded," Bell said.
Bell explained he wanted to keep the crew small in order to minimize their impact on the family, but he did not want to compromise the film’s "cinematic feel." To capture the breathtaking scenery, along with the dramatic interaction between Aisholpan and her eagle, Bell’s crews used a combination of Red Epic cameras, an octocopter S1000 drone and a special harness created to attach a GoPro camera to the eagle itself.
Bell admits that even he was "astonished" by the footage his crew was able to capture.
During filming, Bell said came to admire Aisholpan’s "steely determination" and her father’s "genuine tenderness."
The film’s storyline moves from watching Aisholpan train her baby eagle to listening in as she decides to compete in the province’s prestigious all-male eagle hunting competition. Along the way, audiences get glimpses of Aisholpan’s school day and family life at the ger.
The film culminates with stunning footage of Aisholpan’s first winter hunt on the Mongolian steppes, one of the least populated places in the world, according to Bell.
"We went further and higher than we had ever been before and the temperature dropped to minus 50 degrees. It was abominable. You couldn’t touch a tripod for fear your hand would freeze to it," he recalls, adding the planned 4-day shoot stretched to 22 days because of the difficult conditions.
Through it all, he said, Aisholpan was undeterred. "She was very brave."
Bell said he hopes the film conveys a message about female empowerment, although it is not addressed directly.
"I didn’t want to hit people over the head with that, I hope that just sort of bubbles up through the film."
If the film is successful, he added, the family will share in the proceeds which could give Aisholpan the opportunity to pursue her dream of becoming a primary care physician.
"My hope would be that it gives them options that may not have been open to them before.
In the meantime the family is sure to have an adventure of their own. Aisholpan, her parents and an interpreter will be in Park City to attend screenings and answer audience questions during the Sundance Film Festival.
VISIT A MONGOLIAN GER
"The Eagle Huntress" Mongolian Ger will be set up at Kimball Art Center
1401 Kearns Blvd. (new location). There will also be live eagle demonstrations.
Saturday, Jan. 23, beginning at 11 a.m. and throughout the day
Monday, Jan. 25, beginning at noon and throughout the day
ASHER SVIDENSKY PHOTO EXHIBIT
444 Main Street, Park City
"Eagle Huntress" is showing in the Sundance Kids section of the Sundance Film Festival at the following times and locations:
- Jan. 24, 11:30 a.m., Prospector Square Theatre, Park City
- Jan. 24, 6 p.m., Salt Lake City Library Theatre, Salt Lake City
- Jan. 30, 3:30 p.m., Redstone Cinema 1, Park City
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