A glimpse into the Kazakh culture of ‘Eagle Huntress’

Graphics by Pablo Portilla del Valle

This film documentary chronicles a 13-year old girl’s quest to become a true “Eagle Huntress.” It is packed with all the struggles and challenges that come with such an endeavor: climbing a mountain, raising a wild animal, training arduously for months and risking your life at every step of the way.

But the film is about so much more than that. It’s about cultural identity and transformation. It’s about challenging rigid traditions. It’s about the inseparable, powerful bond between a caring father willing to stand up to his peers and risk his reputation, and a passionate daughter with a dream worth pursuing.

Thisย message rippled through the audience’s hearts at the Savannah Film Festival, who left the Lucas Theatre on Thursday, October, 27 only after clapping through the credits.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about this documentary is the exploration of Kazakh culture. More specifically, how their identityย is wrapped up in this century-old practice known as eagle hunting.

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These Kazakh people living in Western Mongolia are there for historical reasons. In the 1800s, after the Russian Empire drove them out of Kazakhstan, they were allowed to settle in what would later become a tightly-knit community in Western Mongolia. Only recently have they abandoned their isolated values and embraced co-existence with other cultures.

Eagle hunters capture young eaglets during their transitional phase into adulthood. About three months in, when the bird is old enough to survive without its mother, but not old enough to leave the nest.

Aisholpan grips firmly on the rope. “Give me more rope,” she shouts at her father, descending further down the rocks. She looks down; a slip could prove fatal. “More rope!” she says again, reaching extending her arm to reach the eagle’s nest. Two eaglets squeal nervously at this looming figure, terrified. The mother soars in the air, observant and territorial, but cautious. Aisholpan only has a few minutes before the mother attacks.

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The archers draw their bows, pulling tight and taking aim. A parade of mounted musicians march by, playing the dombra, as the children chase hares in the critter pen. It’s the Eagle Festival.

Hunters from all over the region emerge on the horizon, one by one, their horses approach dragging their hooves, thirsty and exhausted. Dozens arrive with ornate gowns and drapes, sheepskin coats and camel-hair camisoles, wolf boots and silk embroidered hats. This year, more than 70 hunters gather in attendance, each with their own eagle, each yearning to prove themselves for recognition.

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A gold ceremonial gown flutters with the freezing wind as the catcher gallops towards the scurrying fox. The hunter stands patient and ready. Her sight is clear and the wind blows in her favor. The eagle’s talons clutch her arm anxiously, it’s eyes transfixed on the prey, ready to pounce at her command. This test of the festival is known as the calling technique of eagle falconry. It is a unique skill passed down through generations, in the same way Aisholpan’s father passed it on to her.

The Golden Eagle festival is a yearly celebration put together by the Mongolian Eagle Hunting Association every first week of October. This is where Aisholpan, the film’s main character, marked an unprecedented feat in Kazakh history, by being the first female to ever compete.

The “Eagle Huntress” releases to select U.S. theaters on November 2, 2016.