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Sunday Movie - 1pm at Fènix Cafe (BCP Center) - The Eagle Huntress (2016 - USA - filmed in Kazakhstan)


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Starting In August, the Fènix Cafe will be closed on Sundays, and the Sunday Movie Matinee will transition to the Monday Movie Matinee with a showtime of 3pm.   We will also have a monthly "Science Fiction Friday" Film Series starting at the end this month.  Our first Sy-Fi feature - on Friday, July 28 at 5pm - will be Fritz Lang's 1927 German silent film "Metropolis" - a true classic and a pioneer in the genre.  Like our Sunday films , we will select intelligent and often thought provoking science fiction films, but few if any pop-culture, space-opera blockbusters. 







This week's Sunday film:  The Eagle Huntress  (2016 - USA  - filmed in Kazakhstan)  - Documentary - 87 minutes, Rated G

I watched this film at home last week, and loved the story.  Aisholpan - the Eagle Huntress - is a real person.  She is a delightful 13-year old Kazakh girl who lives with her semi-nomadic family in in the steppes and mountains of Western Mongolia near the Kazakhstan border.  She is the star of the film, and her calm and confident personality and her relationship to her father is extraordinarily heartwarming.  Aisholpan is a also an excellent student, and she wants to become a doctor - in a country where 70% of college graduates are women.  A profit-sharing feature set up by the producers and marketers of the film will pay for her education.  

Unfortunately, when I first watched the film, I was put off by some of its elements, including the use of some schmaltzy pop music - that made it a feel not quite fully authentic.  I had a feeling that what could have been a truly excellent documentary had been "Disney-fied" and felt a bit contrived.  So when it finished, I went to Google to see if others sensed the same thing, and low and behold, a few reviewers did indeed have the same reaction.  The review below from Australia's "Sydney Morning Herald" expresses the flaws of the film better than I ever could. 

So why would I invite my friends and fellow film lovers to see a "flawed" film?  The answer is simple - the real story behind the shortcomings of this film is very heartwarming.  Aisholpan and her friends and family are so real, and the spectacular scenery so utterly beautiful and breathtaking, that the positives overwhelm the negatives.  I look forward to watching the film again with our Sunday movie-goers, and focusing on the story and the setting - while ignoring the flaws.  If you do the same, you will leave afterwards with a warm feeling your heart for this delightful young woman and her accomplishments.  (The story intrigued me so much that I spent several hours researching it and writing this e-mail.)  From the below review, critic Paul Byrnes tells us that "
The images tell us more than the words, with one stunning shot after another of their life on the steppe..." 

Link to trailer 

From the The Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald

There's a beautiful sequence in this visually impressive film where a famed Mongolian eagle hunter named Agalai takes his 13-year-old daughter Aisholpan to capture a young eagle on the cliffs near their home.

Aisholpan Nurgaiv learns the             ancient art of eagle hunting. Aisholpan Nurgaiv learns the ancient art of eagle hunting. Photo: Asher Svidensky

We already know, courtesy of an unnecessary narration voiced by Daisy Ridley, that these nomads have been capturing and raising eagles as hunters for more than 1000 years in the Altai mountains.

The images tell us more than the words, with one stunning shot after another of their life on the steppe. Agalai's father taught him, and both men were champions in the annual eagle festival at Ulgii.

Aisholpan is a star student at the school where she and two siblings board five days a week. On weekends, they return to the family's summer home to their doting mother, Almagul. Aisholpan wants to become the first eagle huntress in Mongolia, a role usually reserved for men. We get a short montage of grizzled old eagle hunters who disapprove.

In the cliff sequence, Agalai and Aisholpan climb above the nest. He then ties his daughter to a rope and lets her down the cliff.

We see this from several camera angles, including her own point of view. She is fearless, capturing the terrified eaglet as gently as she can and enfolding it in a rug, to be hauled back up the cliff.


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At home, her father praises her: you are as brave as any man. Boys and girls should be equal, he says. She beams. The training begins.

That sequence may be the most authentic part of the film, at least in terms of documentary. The image quality is poorer in this section because the English director Otto Bell filmed it on his first visit, with rudimentary equipment.

He had seen a stunning photo of Aisholpan, taken in 2013 by Israeli photographer, Asher Svidensky. A successful advertising director, Bell went to Mongolia with a cinematographer friend to find her, with Svidensky's help.

Most of the rest of the film was shot on a later trip, in superb quality with a full quiver of modern kit – including a crane and drone, to get an eagle's eye view. Almost none of these shots has the authenticity of the cliff sequence – which leads us to the central question.

Can we call this documentary, or is it some kind of hybrid, when so much of it is constructed for the camera?

In the prologue, a hunter releases his beloved eagle in the wild, after sacrificing a sheep. It is the custom: after seven years, when old enough to breed, the bird is set free – ''to continue the circle of life'', says Ridley, the first sign of the film's secret Disney heart.

Bell has denied that anything was staged, while conceding that well, yes, he did restage this bit.

Actually, I don't see anything wrong with Bell working with his talent to create the most beautiful sequences. All film-makers make choices, whether it be shooting at the golden hour or finding a vehicle that can keep pace with Aisholpan charging across the steppe on her horse.

The problem is Bell's reshaping of the truth. Folklore researcher Adrienne Mayor of Stanford University has written a critique of the film, based on her extensive research.

Mayor says the tradition of women as eagle hunters goes back at least 1000 years. She introduces, with photographs, a number of women doing it in Mongolia now. She says the film-makers knew that, but Bell declined an offer to meet one of them. There was even another young girl hunter at the Uglii festival where Aisholpan first shows her prowess – no sign of her in the film.

To some extent, the film rests on an assumption that's easy to disprove: if Mongolians have a backward attitude to empowering girls, how come 70 per cent of the students at Mongolian universities are women?

Could it be that what we have here is really a fantasy for Western eyes, constructed from Western prejudice about "primitive" peoples, who took only what they wanted from Aisholpan and her family, disregarding the rest.

In that sense this is not so much a film about girl power: it's a film about first world power.


Here is a LINK to the website of
Asher Svidensky, the Israeli photographer who "discovered" Aisholpan and inspired director Otto Bell to film the documentary.  His subjects and photography are absolutely spectacular.

If you want to see a "regular" documentary
about other Mongolian eagle hunters - with less polish and without the Hollywood embellishments - here is a LINK to a video on YouTube.  Near the end of that 2016 documentary from Kazakhstan is the short piece about another Mongolian girl who also wants to be an Eagle Huntress and follow in the footsteps the now famous Aisholpan. 

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