2016; directed by Otto Bell; 87 mins
Here’s a film I wanted to like so much more than I did. A film that should’ve stood tall on the shoulders of it’s central characters alone but hampered itself by trying to be more than it was. Bear in mind, however, that whatever I say about this film, I know full well that any kids (particularly little girls) going to see this would be utterly captivated, thrilled and inspired by it and I urge you to take them if at all possible.
It tells the story of 13 year-old Aisholpan, who is being tutored by her father to become the first female Eagle Hunter in Kazakhstan. Eagle hunting has always been an entirely male way of life and though her family almost unquestioningly supports her, there is resistance from more Conservative elements in the Kazakh community. The film shows her journey from learning to handle the Eagles, to catching and training her own, to competing at an Eagle Hunting festival and finally going out onto the steppes to hunt foxes.
The film tries to do Aisholpan’s story like you would a dramatic feature. She has obstacles to beat and prejudices to overcome but the film seems to wrong-foot itself. It may be that a certain unshow-y nature of the Kazakh people presented here is at odds with the David vs Goliath story that the film wants to portray. Aisholpan herself, whilst sociable and confident is not a ball-busting go-getter. The story is a much quieter one and would’ve suited with – not a more sombre tone – but just being less Hollywood-ised around the edges.
Case in point, is the music which is so much telling you how to feel! At last year’s festival, the film Girlhood featured Rihanna’s Diamonds, written by Sia and it was and is one of the greatest scenes I’ve ever seen! Here, we have a song by Sia which is so jarringly aspirational and misplaced that it actually ruined the emotional stakes in the film, for me, not once but FOUR times! In Girlhood, the music works because it’s the kind of music the characters would listen to. In this, it just seems anachronistic in a way that jumps the shark. You can happily put some 70s funk into a WWII movie if it compliments the mood, the tone and the story. Here, the melodramatic nature of the song is so trying to make you punch the air in triumph and it just doesn’t feel right compared to what we are shown of Aisholpan and her family.
There are also a few scenes which leave you questioning the legitimacy of the storytelling, like a moment of conversation between Aisholpan and her younger sister, which feels oddly staged. In interviews with contrarian elders who decry her attempts to become an Eagle Huntress with various outmoded ideas of what women can and can’t do, we are given no frame of reference as to how they know her or her story. Are they neighbours or are they from somewhere else entirely being told about it second hand?
Despite this, when the scenes of Eagle Hunting and festival trials come along, you do find yourself going with it in a big way. Will the eagle behave at the festival? Will she be accepted by the other Eagle Hunters? Will she catch her first fox in the winter wilderness? I do admire that they’ve tried to make a big movie out of this tiny story and it pays a lot of dividends with regards to dramatic tension. Not only that there are utterly magical little scenes with Aisholpan and her friends in their school dormitory, chatting, laughing and being normal schoolgirls and little moments like this that really hit their mark. In the end, the film unbalances it’s better moments through sheer desire to be as mainstream friendly as it can which, at best, is slightly pandering and at worst, insincere.