Aisholpan Nurgaiv has never met this eagle she’s posing with — borrowed from a local animal wrangler — on a balcony at the London Hotel in West Hollywood. In 90-degree heat, she’s a 15-year-old girl sweating in her Mongolian winter clothes, including a hat made from the first fox she caught with her eagle. She's with her mother, Alma, and father, Nurgaiv. A photographer places director Otto Bell into the scene and asks Aisholpan to raise the eagle up high, as though she were about to let it go soaring into the air, and a wide smile crosses her face. While the girl’s parents take a cautious step back, Bell braces himself, because the eagle — which has spread its wings and lost its footing just above his head — reaches a talon into his neck, dragging the thick claw all the way down to his shoulder.
“Ow!” he yelps, laughing. “I’m bleeding for my art, yeah?”
I’m here to talk to the family (through their translator) about what’s changed since Bell’s documentary The Eagle Huntress — depicting Aisholpan’s rise to become both the best and the first female eagle huntress — has been screening at film festivals all over the world, also touring schools, where Aisholpan gives her eagle demonstrations. I expect to find a little girl out of her element in the big city, but find something else entirely: a confident kid having some fun.
Two years ago, when Bell saw Asher Svidensky’s photograph of Aisholpan with her eagle on a mountaintop in remote Mongolia on the BBC Facebook page, he spent his life’s savings to hop on a plane to meet this girl and her family. The British-born director had been making short docs in faraway places for a while and wondered if there was a story with this teenager. Her father welcomed Bell into their home and within minutes announced that they were about to lower Aisholpan down a cliffside to steal her eagle from a nest — so bring the cameras.
Since then, the director’s life has become intertwined with this family’s. They’ve dined and traveled together, developing a nonverbal language of camaraderie, though their translator does help smooth out the edges. In a few months, the three of them will even be flying in for Bell’s wedding.
“I’ve always felt responsible for them,” Bell says. “I always wanted to make sure they were having a good time. When they came to Sundance, we stopped first in New York. I took them on a sightseeing bus, and we went out to the Statue of Liberty and we had big family meals with the producers.”
Once they were in Utah on that trip, Bell made the decision to have the family stay in the home of some locals. That family has a girl Aisholpan's age who was having a birthday party at a bowling alley. Hearing this, I ask Aisholpan if she got a strike.
“A few,” she says confidently.
“I believe it!” says Bell.
She still exchanges short letters with the Utah girl through Facebook when she can sneak away at her boarding school in the town — just like any parents, mom and dad don’t approve of too much screentime.
Millions have shared Aisholpan’s photo on Facebook, admiring her from afar, and millions more about to see her documentary. But she has remained grounded. She’s become a celebrity back home because of her positivity and perseverance, and now she’s gotten a scholarship to a prestigious Turkish school in Mongolia, along with a handful of awards from the government. Throughout the filmmaking process, Bell says he’s done his best to make the experience equal and non-exploitative. But as a white American man coming in to document a foreign girl’s life and culture, he says he felt pressure to show the family as they are, with respect, rather than display them as curiosities for Westerners. He was also intimidated by the fact that he had little understanding of what a regular girl does in her daily life.
“I was showing these clips to friends and family and had all these drone sequences I was really proud of, and my friends and family were like, ‘Where do they live? Where do they get water? Does she go to school?’”
Bell realized he wanted to bring in cinematographer Martina Radwan to live side by side with the family, which resulted in the film's most intimate moments, like Aisholpan painting her nails pink with her little sister or Alma making dinner. These scenes beautifully counter Bell’s epic shots of grandeur as Aisholpan scours a cliffside nest for an eaglet or treks across dangerous, snow-covered mountains to hunt her first fox. That combo of regular-but-extraordinary-girl shots is the reason so many have connected to Aisholpan’s story, especially children, who’ve spontaneously erupted into roaring cheers just upon seeing her at their school assemblies. Aisholpan’s reaction is always the same: a measured smile and wave.
Even as she flies around the world on a surreal film-fest tour, where movie stars like Amy Adams, Casey Affleck and Jennifer Garner stop her in the street to gush about how much they love her, Aisholpan shrugs. In Toronto, I ran into the family shaking hands — polite but unenthused — with Paul Verhoeven and Isabelle Huppert. Richard Gere tracked them down at a festival to talk about Mongolia, but it took their translator hours in the hotel later to explain who Gere is; the only film of his they’d seen was 2009’s Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, or “the movie with the teacher and the dog,” as Aisholpan calls it. What most interests Aisholpan: adventure, competition, her family and her dream of becoming a doctor.
While I barrage her with questions, Aisholpan sits calmly on the couch in the London Hotel’s lounge. Her answers are terse but complete. What she really wants to do, Bell reveals, is finish the interview and head out to the beach and the Hollywood sign. Later, when I call up Bell to see how the L.A. trip went, he laughs. Aisholpan won the rigged and unwinnable ring toss game on the Santa Monica pier on her first try. The woman working the booth was flabbergasted, and Aisholpan picked a giant teddy bear that needed its own seat home on the plane.
“We all rode the roller coaster too, and I hate roller coasters,” Bell says. “You know when they capture the photo at the top? She’s got her arms flung out, literally soaring, with this calm angelic smile on her face, and I’m gripping the bar, howling through my teeth at how awful it is.” Bell has deep reverence in his voice as he speaks of this fascinating girl who will forever be intertwined with his own life. “It’s kind of indicative of how we all were when we were filming: She’s not afraid of anything, and I’m along for the ride.”