So far, 2016 may have brought us Margot Robbie's bat-wielding Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad, Kate McKinnon's scene-stealing Holtzmann in Ghostbusters, and the promise of Felicity Jones' Star Wars lead in Rogue One, but the coolest lady you'll see in movies this year is none other than a 13-year-old girl. She may not be your typical on-screen heroine, but Aisholpan, the Mongolian star of the new documentary The Eagle Huntress , is every bit as badass as her superhero peers; the film follows her (spoiler: successful) journey to become the first female eagle hunter in her family, breaking 12 generations of tradition. Aisholpan's determination to succeed at the male-honored practice of training an eagle to hunt food, despite the enormous odds against her, is as inspiring as it gets — and her story, as captured by filmmaker Otto Bell, is simply unforgettable.
And it's only by chance that the documentary ever came to be. In 2014, Bell stumbled upon a BBC story about Aisholpan that featured photos of the teen. "They were just so beautiful and otherworldly," he tells Bustle of the photos, that "I thought, God, there’s gotta be a film behind those pictures." Bell got in touch with the photographer, Asher Svidensky, and the two traveled to Mongolia to meet Aisholpan and her family. On their first visit, Bell filmed what would become the film's most stunning sequence: Aisholpan stealing a baby eagle from its nest on a mountain, with only her father's shouts and a handful of rope for support. It's a terrifying, heart-pounding scene, a remarkable show of bravery from the film's teenage star unlike anything previously seen in a documentary.
"That’s when it became less about me making a film and more about, I have to tell this story," recalls Bell.
With scenes that range from Aisholpan competing against dozens of men in a eagle hunting festival to the teen laughing with friends at school, The Eagle Huntress, out Nov. 2, is a joy to watch — if also a test of one's courage (it's impossible to watch Aisholpan dangerously capture that eagle without gripping your armrest in fear). In person, Aisholpan is so shy and reserved — she speaks through a translator, but mostly lets Bell do the talking — that it's hard to imagine she's the same teen who so fearlessly defied Mongolian tradition by training an eagle to help in her hunts. Yet, when watching The Eagle Huntress, Aisholpan's bravery and unwillingness to conform displays a sense of empowerment that's truly impressive to behold.
And the effects of her actions have already proved to be huge. Through her translator, Aisholpan describes how three other girls have following her lead and are now training to be eagle hunters; seeing their success, she says, makes her "very happy and very proud." Bell, meanwhile, says he's been thrilled by the reactions the movie has provoked from its pre-teen viewers; he describes with glee the sight of kids running up after screenings to get selfies with Aisholpan. "They all cheered and clapped for her, like she was a celeb coming out of a hotel or something," Bell recalls."It was cool because they were clapping for somebody for the right reasons — not because of what she was wearing or who she was dating or something like that. It was because of what she had done, what she accomplished and what she achieved."
With such an inspiring heroine, it made sense that Bell would want an equally impressive narrator for The Eagle Huntress, and he found that in Daisy Ridley. Known for playing the badass, barrier-breaking Rey in the latest Star Wars film, the actor is a perfect choice for a story about a young girl's passion and strength — yet to Bell's surprise, it wasn't Ridley's time as Rey that made her want to get involved in the film, but the documentary's focus on the relationship between Aisholpan and her supportive father. "She said that her dad had been really supportive of her when she was growing up, and of her acting and her theatrical career," Bell says about Ridley. "And she clearly, she’d really fallen in love with Aisholpan, so she said, 'Look, what can I do to help?'" Soon after, the actor signed on as both narrator and executive producer of the film.
Ridley's involvement, plus the use of a new Sia song ("Angel By The Wings") in the movie's end credits, should help push The Eagle Huntress to mainstream success, a typically difficult feat for a documentary with an unknown subject. This film deserves to be seen — and Aisholpan deserves to be regarded as as much of a heroine as her big-screen peers.
Images: Sony Pictures Classics