Otto Bell’s The Eagle Huntress

British director Otto Bell’s The Eagle Huntress takes us into a distant and unfamiliar culture to tell the aspirational story of Aisholpan, a thirteen year old Kazakh girl. The film documents Aisholpan’s quest for Eagle Huntress status that if successful would see her become the first female eagle hunter in her family in twelve generations. Deeply contrasting to our cityscapes and culture in the West, the film offers a window onto a culture that shows the diversity of the modern world, where traditions so often underpin our sense of belonging, purpose and identity. In conversation with Aesthetica, Bell discussed the expectations versus the realities of his experience, intertwining the human story with the landscape and creating a film that could forge an emotional connection with his audience.

With this being your first feature documentary, how did the expectations compare to the realities of the experience?

You know I had no idea going into it what it was going to take. Financially, emotionally and personally, in retrospect it was the hardest thing I’ve done, and I spent my life savings on it. I went into debt with the bank and I’ve never been in debt before. A lot of times it felt like it was taking over my life and I wasn’t ready for a sense of responsibility either. I got very lucky in that I captured Aisholpan in this first step towards full Eagle Huntress status. The first day we were there we filmed her climbing down that mountainside and taking that bird out of the nest, and the moment I got that it was incumbent upon me to finish the thing – I was tied to her coming of age. She dictated the production schedule because she was damn well going to compete in the festival and we had to be there. She was going to go out and hunt in winter and so we had to show up. Things kept happening to her and unfolding, and I don’t think I was quite ready for the loss of control. From the outside as a director you maybe think you are controlling everything, but on a live documentary story like this you are just observing, you are just trying to track alongside something that’s unfolding.

Aisholpan’s story could be seen to conceal the view of your own story, the two running alongside one another. When you yourself watch the film, your memories both emotional and physical acknowledge this second story, which is otherwise overshadowed.

Honestly, I agree with you. I think there are two intertwined stories, but that said it was her story that helped me finish my story. I took inspiration from seeing how determined and how focused she was on finishing what she had started, and accomplishing what she dreamed of. I finished my film in part because she was an example to me.

What was the source of this strong impulse to make the film or confidence in the subject matter?

Yeah, it was Asher’s photos. In this post text world where video is the dominant medium, I tend to look at everything through the lens of film, whether it’s something I’m reading or a piece of art work, and I sort of translate it into film. His photographs were just like that – they were like a painting. More importantly just beyond being aesthetically beautiful, the ingredients in it potentially equalled a great film. It had this fantastic location with the Altai mountains in the background, it had this enormous bird, the largest species of Golden Eagle in the world, with a six, seven foot wing span, and it had this incredibly angelic and strong female protagonist in the foreground. Now you put those things together and you have the makings of a really good film.

Speaking of the landscape, it is not simply used as an aesthetic backdrop, rather you expose the story and the character of the spatial environment. Can you discuss the pursuit of this and your experience of turning the environment into a character?

I did treat the environment like a character because it is so integral to life there,and is not in any way conquered by man like our modern cityscapes are. It is an adversary, it is a provider and it is omnipresent in the decisions that you make out there. It is vast and after my first visit I called my main director of photography Simon Niblett, whose a pioneer in drone photography and I said, “Simon, we are going to have to get up in the air here because this pace is so cinematic.” I was thinking about those older westerns and I told him that we had to do it justice. It is colossal and it is beautiful, and we needed to show it in all its glory. Plus it’s a film about eagles and so you’ve got to get the birds eye view in there. But yeah, the environment has such a bearing on the way that these people live their lives. Aisholpan’s father says that nature is like our mother and he means it. The Kazakh are a Muslim people and that’s the faith that they practice, but there is also a very strong legacy of Mongolian Shamanism, where they believe in Mother Earth and Father Sky, which permeates their belief system. It’s interesting and hopefully the landscape does feel personified.

You have said, “I knew that if I was going to do justice to her story, I would have to find a way to make people feel like I did at that moment.” These words reveal another level of consciousness to the film, wherein you are looking towards your audience and the task of creating a connection between them and the film. Of course, one can never predict the response of the always unpredictable audience.

You can’t, and it’s the most remote part of the least populated country in the world. Standing there I remember thinking you could go for days here and not see another human soul – how am I going to play that? How am I going to get that across? This was where I looked to play with scale and a lot of the drone photography came in helpful here, just in terms of opening the audiences eyes to how vast and lonely this place could be.

Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the filmmaking process, where the person you were before the film is different to the person you are now?

Oh absolutely. I do think the film has fundamentally changed who I am and like I said at the start, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve also learned that there’s no heroism or romanticism in trying to make a film alone. In so much as I know it has changed me, one of the main things I’ve realised is that I need other people around me in order to be successful. So the producers and the executive producers, these all exist for good reason. The idea of the lone filmmaker crafting his art is a bit of nonsense to me. I mean of course you have your point of view, but you need that wall of other people, other opinions that are changing and evolving together in order to get the thing finished, and successfully distributed.

The Eagle Huntress releases in UK cinemas on 16 December through Altitude Film Distribution.

Paul Risker

1. Otto Bell, The Eagle Huntress (film still).