The Eagle Huntress
by director Otto Bell
“Girls can do anything boys can do, so long as they’re determined.”
That’s the first full sentence Aisholpan "the Eagle Huntress" ever said to me.
We had just met and were perched on the side of a mountain in the Altai region of North West Mongolia. She had just scrambled down a cliff and plucked a baby golden eaglet from its nest—a daring feat that would later become the first act of this coming-of-age story.
I couldn’t understand her Kazakh words until they were translated for me, but I remember her tone of voice to this day. It was matter-of-fact and firm to the point of being almost steely. I now realize this was my first glimpse of a glorious competitive streak that partly defines this remarkable 13-year-old nomad girl.
It was this confident spirit that carried Aisholpan—and my ragtag little production—through the most astounding chain of events I think I’m ever likely to witness. My crew of three people and I were lucky enough to film her taking every step towards full Eagle Hunter status, an honor that has traditionally been the preserve of men for hundreds of years. We watched her build a preternatural bond with her bird “White Wings.” We were there when she became the first woman to ever compete in the local Golden Eagle Festival. We even followed her through the bitter Mongolian winter as she struck out to hunt deep in the mountains in -40 degree conditions.
Aisholpan’s determination set the example for the rest of us. We were chronically underfunded, on a poor diet, and often lacking sleep but we could never complain, simply because she took it all in her stride and made it look so effortless. Nothing could dampen our spirits because she was always pressing ahead.
Fast forward two and a bit years and Aisholpan and I were together again, this time in Los Angeles promoting the documentary that we made together. She’d never seen an ocean before, so we were spending time on Santa Monica Beach. After splashing in the tide, we decided to play some games on the famous Pier. Sure enough, I saw her inner determination come to the fore and take hold yet again. I watched as she fearlessly handled her first rollercoaster, before going on to win all the supposedly unwinnable ring toss games. This was just the latest example in her extraordinary success story.
To bear witness to Aisholpan’s journey was a rare honor and one I’d very much like to share with you and your family. I hope her story stays with you, and that she gives you the inspiration to keep going when it all feels impossible.