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In 'The Eagle Huntress,' A Mongolian Girl Sets Out To Prove Her Elders Wrong


In the mountains of Mongolia, men - well, mostly men - have hunted with golden eagles for centuries. It's a skill passed down from generation to generation, usually from father to son. In the new documentary "The Eagle Huntress" the tradition gets passed down from father to daughter, as 13-year-old Aisholpan Nurgaiv catches, trains and eventually learns to hunt with an eagle of her own.


MCEVERS: (Laughter). That's Aisholpan showing me how she calls her eagle when I talked to her the other day. She told me her father encouraged her to do this, even though other male eagle hunters did not like the idea.

NURGAIV: (Foreign language spoken).

MCEVERS: She says the fact that these men opposed her made her try even harder. The director of the film "The Eagle Huntress" is Otto Bell. And he says he met Aisholpan through a photographer who'd already taken pictures of her. He says when he did meet her, he knew he had to make a film about her.

OTTO BELL: We were sitting around having tea in their ger, which is their family home. And I was sort of talking about the idea of maybe making a film. And it was at that point that dad, Agalai - he stood up. And he said, oh, well, we're going to go and steal a baby eagle from the mountainside this afternoon for Aisholpan. Is that the sort of thing you'd like to film?


MCEVERS: You're like, yeah.

BELL: Yeah. Yeah.

MCEVERS: That's something we'd like to do (laughter).

BELL: And we weren't ready. We had to scramble. But...

MCEVERS: You did have equipment, I would imagine.

BELL: Yeah. Yeah. I had a cameraman with me. And the photographer was with me, as well.

MCEVERS: Right. And then from there, you know, the story kind of emerges, right? Because there's all these hurdles that Aisholpan plan has to overcome. You know, first, it's catching the bird, her own eagle. And then what? What are the next hurdles for her?

BELL: Then you have to train that bird over a number of months and sort of imprint your voice upon it, feed it, gain its trust and build that bond. And then, oftentimes, you'll take it to a festival to demonstrate that bond, to show off your skills. It's a big social event in their community. And then, finally, you have to take that eagle out and successfully hunt in winter.

MCEVERS: And Aisholpan's father, from the very beginning, it seems, is supportive of her plan to do this. But other eagle hunters in this community do not believe that a girl can do it. I mean, we should say there have been a few other female eagle hunters before. But these guys are just not buying it, right?

BELL: Yeah, you're right. There have been other occasions in history. But in her part of the world - in her - in Northwest Mongolia, in the Altai Mountains, it's certainly a rarity. And, yeah, like any community, you know, you're going to get a range of opinions.

And the elders were pretty set against it. And then, of course, she's the first woman to attend their annual eagle festival. And she competes. She's pretty successful. I won't give it away.


BELL: And at that point, again, they sort of reject this idea that she's been successful. They kind of give a laundry list of excuses as to why she performed so well.


BELL: You know, it's a great bird. Her father's an excellent trainer.

MCEVERS: She's a girl.

BELL: Exactly. It's because the tourists are there. You know, they tend to ignore the fact that she smashed the record and performed very well on merit. So they throw down a fresh gauntlet. And they say, well, you know, it's one thing to do well at a festival.

But if she can't hunt in winter, then she's not a real eagle huntress. And she won't be welcome back next year. And, of course, this is what Aisholpan has been building towards. She's always wanted to go out and hunt with her father. And she gets her wish.

MCEVERS: There's a great scene where she is at the eagle-hunting competition. It's evening. She's eating with the men in the room.

BELL: That's right.

MCEVERS: And any other woman in the room is cooking, right? And so the women who are cooking are sort of looking at her sitting with the men, eating. And it's so clear - these gender lines that she's crossed, you know, in that scene. Was she aware of that?

BELL: Yes. Yes, she was. She was. Her father insulated her from it for a long time. But it became quite apparent, I think, at the festival.

MCEVERS: But just - yeah, so she realizes that the men are not psyched about it but also that, like, she should be the one cooking. You know what I mean? Did she...

BELL: Try telling her that.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

BELL: She is an incredibly determined young woman. I mean, there is a real duality to her character, which we try to bring out in the film, whereby, in many ways, she is a 13-year-old girl. She likes painting her nails. She likes hanging out with her friends.


BELL: She likes ice skating. But then there is a switch that flicks. And you see this incredible determination. You know, whether she's playing checkers or wrestling or eagle hunting, she wants to be the best. I'm seeing that now in her studies.

Since the film came out, she's got a scholarship to a really good school in Mongolia. It happens to be in her neighborhood. She's learned Turkish. Her English has come on incredibly well. And she is determined to become a surgeon. And, you know, we're putting aside proceeds from the film to make sure that she can do that.

MCEVERS: Well, Otto Bell, thank you so much.

BELL: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

MCEVERS: That was Otto Bell, who directed "The Eagle Huntress," talking about a girl named Aisholpan Nurgaiv. The film is in theaters now.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE EAGLE HUNTRESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.