Documentary, truth and eagle hunters

Father and daughter in the Altai hills of Mongolia – one of the promo images from THE EAGLE HUNTRESS

We saw The Eagle Huntress back in January and though I enjoyed the film there were several things about it that made me circumspect. It purported to be a documentary about a young teenage girl in Mongolia training an eagle, flying it at a festival and taking it on a hunt. The film was ‘presented by’ Daisy Ridley and championed as an example of ‘girl power’. When I began to research the background to the film I realised that it would make an interesting case study for film and media students and I wrote a short piece for the MediaMagazine (a publication for 16-19 year-olds taking A Level Film/Media Studies). Unfortunately MediaMagazine is only accessible online to subscribers and its production cycle is quite long. I feared that the film might disappear from view before the magazine reached schools and colleges.

Issue 60 of MM includes my short piece on The Eagle Huntress

What I hadn’t realised was just how strongly some of the film’s critics felt about what they were beginning to discover about the film’s production and distribution. After my original posting I began to receive tweets from one of the principal investigators, Meghan Fitz-James in Vancouver, and from others. I found myself re-writing the original post and also publishing some of the comments I received. You can find the post and comments on Since then, Meghan has kept working and kept exposing more aspects of the story. You can access all of her work via her twitter feed @MeghanfjFitz. What she has discovered is another example of a familiar story that has been told about supposedly ‘documentary’ filmmaking going back 100 years or more, but in 2017 is seen in the context of social media and a new level of globalised exploitation of people and cultures.

The background to the controversy is neatly set out in the (English language) clip from France TV above. I’m not surprised  by the evidence that has been uncovered but I am amazed by what it is possible to find using social media and internet searches (and a great deal of effort and no little expense). The research also includes visits to Mongolia and direct contact with some of the key figures in the story. Thinking about the ways in which the filmmaker Otto Bell and his various collaborators on the production and subsequent distribution of the film have gone about their business, I’m conscious of the failure of film studies to properly educate audiences about what they are watching.

Film studies has explored how documentaries have been made and has classified the different documentary modes that have developed since the 1920s. We’ve known and accepted for a long time that documentaries may include ‘re-constructions’. It’s not the practice itself that’s an issue, it’s the deception – the attempt to pass something off as ‘real’. In the last twenty to thirty years, two things have happened alongside the development of digital technologies. Firstly, the explosion of forms of ‘reality TV’ and ‘infotainment’ have undermined the sense and purpose of traditional documentary practice. Secondly, the ability to create digital images that appear ‘real’ but have actually been created not through a camera but by photo software has discredited ‘photographic realism’ so that for many, ‘realism’ is no longer an issue.

Alongside this undermining of documentary as a practice that can inform as well as create art is the gradual de-politicisation of film and media education. In this respect, the furore created by the investigators of the production of Eagle Huntress has demonstrated that film studies needs cultural studies and social anthropology to engage with the subjects of this kind of documentary narrative. It is also important to confront the adoption of ‘girlpower’ as a promotional and marketing tool rather than a liberating ideology for young women in different cultures and to recognise the perils of an ‘orientalist’ approach to stories set in parts of Asia that are not regularly represented in western media. What saddens me also is that a public agency such as the British Film Institute should have helped to fund distribution of a film like this without first investigating the story behind it. At least the BBC has carried reports that contest aspects of the film’s story. We all need to be careful as we watch and enjoy films and then sit down to write about them.


  1. keith1942

    Very good Roy. My friend and I were both sceptical about the authenticity of the film when we first saw it. However, I was also concerned about the exploitation of the Eagle in the process. There was no voice for this exploited animal stolen from his family home.


    • Roy Stafford

      I think the eagles are treated like working animals on a farm. They are trained and ‘work’ for a few years and are then released back to the wild. I think in the film they say that the birds are usually females?


    • gaunletthrower

      Hi Keith (and Roy),

      I thought I would try to address your concerns based on what I have read, watched (ethnographic films), and witnessed (the eagle festivals and care of the eagles in person) around the care of the eagles taken from the nest or trapped.

      The art of eagle hunting and caring for the golden eagles as short-term (7 out of an eagle’s life span of 35 years) hunting partner has developed over centuries and centuries…and centuries. It is seen by traditional hunters as a huge and engrossing responsibility and those who wish to emulate them learn from such hunters. The eagle hunters also belong to an association with ongoing seminars and so forth. There is access to education further to traditional knowledge.

      If you watch any ethnographic films on the subject you will see how cared for the eagles are once captured. The eagles taken from the nest almost imprint on their owners IF taken too young and then see their owners as their mate and this is problematic (read on). The eagles that are trapped have to be subdued into through regulation of their food and water intake but this is done as empathically as the hunter can manage. Not all eagles are considered temperamenally suitable and those are released. Afterall, the eagle becomes a companion to the hunter AND is seen as a sacred animal by the traditional hunters with a careful consideration of keeping the ‘balance in nature’ always on their minds. There is a saying that the hunter loves his eagle more than his wife. The eagles are feed like athletes when cared for for the purpose of hunting or competing at the festivals. The most difficult aspect of the art is reportedly learning how to feed the eagle but there are a myriad of subtle skills ranging from how an eagle can be calmed gently, and making sure the feathers are kept healthy. Please watch 4:35 to 6:40 of this for some insight from a traditional hunter.

      I encourage you also watch Nancy Cowan in this ( )
      during the Q & A section. There are some nuances missed by Cowan based on my reading and watching of educational ethnographic films. But the issues she brings to light are important ones as they reflect back to the care of the eagles…Which is and should be an ongoing concern, of course. I watched an ethnographic film where there was an eagle taken from its nest and it was a traditional hunter and his son that did so…And it IS seen as a traditional way…. Along with trapping them too. But in the ethnographic film that same eagle was not flown at a festival: the ethnographic film was filmed before the festivals even began ( the main one in Ulgii came about it in 2000 to try to showcase the culture and show training methods and bond between eagle and owner… and to extend the tourism season into the colder shoulder season months ). I have read studies which say that the traditional hunters tend to prefer the trapped eagles because they know how to hunt already BUT the nest-taken birds are also considered good by some as THEY can be trained to be safely around humans and herd animals – noting that most traditional eagle hunters are herders for a living- and are considered less fearful of attacking larger prey like wolves due to this exposure to large herd animals. Such nest-caught eagles are also therefore good for killing wolves which attack the herd animals. And that said, not all hunters will risk hunting a wolf with their eagle because it is most dangerous for the eagle. It is a life and death fight and sometimes the eagle loses. As in nature.

      Ecologically, there are many issues aside from the ones noted by Nancy Cowan. I think the problem is that the eagles are taken very young nowadays by some and also, from what I have read in a very comprehensive 2016 study called “When the hunt is over: Culture and Conservation on Kazakh eagle falconry” the eagles are being bought and sold including to people who wish to appear as though they are eagle hunters and are merely eagle owners a.k.a “imposters”. Which a reason this overly young capture of eaglets is happening in the first place.

      With a lack of sufficient tourism diversification these eagle owners may get tourists to stay with them as the tourist thinks they are staying with a real hunter and not just an eagle owner.
      I am not sure the numbers but if there are only 50-60 true traditional eagle hunters in Western Mongolian according to a five year photo essay study by Palani Mohan, then amongst the altogether 250-400 (depending on the source)…eagle hunters in Western Mongolia, some are barely hunting, doing it mostly for festivals, or are merely eagle owners. This is what the studies show. That does not mean to say the so-called ‘showman’ hunters are mistreating their eagles. They need to learn to treat their eagles well and not like toys as this, if discovered by a traditional hunter, would not go down well.

      At clear risk, according to the studies, is the capture and release custom which is reportedly ‘in discontinuation’ with eagles not being released in a timely manner by some as they keep them longer for economic reasons connected to tourism. See Battulga and Soma study Altai Kazakh falconry as ‘heritage tourism’: the Golden Eagle Festivals of Western Mongolia.

      From the When the hunt it over study you will get really current and excellent information. The “good”, traditional hunters consider themselves good partly because they release their well cared-for and beloved eagles back to nature by age 7/8 so they can breed healthily and keep the sacred ‘balance in nature’. They even tie a white ribbon around the eagles neck, according to the ethnographic film ( maybe this is not done anymore) so that the good hunting bird can be identified so that her good offspring can be looked for by hunters or sourcer for a next eagle to train. I also read that some herders (noting that few hunters do hunting on its own for a living and most are herders who do
      it as a pasttime/hobby/augmentative income source/prideful heritage) may not have the time to capture and train their own eagles now and rely on hunters dedicated for that purpose.

      So this issue of the The Eagle Huntress film and its impact on the increased tourism and connected negative side of things needs to be recognized. Tourism has increased by a reported 10-12%. I was told this by the same person who told me “the whole town does not talk about the film (The Eagle Huntress) because everbody knows it is a made up story” (!!!!) and tourism is considered to have boomed because of the film and for that the locals are happy as is the Mongolian government….And yet the bigger ecological concerns are watchdogged but more intensive watchdogging appears necessary ( see studies ).

      I think that while it is important Nancy Cowan has explained the difference between festival purpose-trained eagles and true hunting eagles and how much work it would take to turn one into the other (if that is tried) and so on…Things are a LOT more complicated than one would think…..Perhaps traditional hunters go to the festival with one brand of eagle and leave their true hunting eagles home?.. I have read there are traditional eagle hunters who do not really like the festivals because they do not agree with the ‘showman’ emphasis and economic gain emphasis. I have also read that eagle huntress Lauren McGough – who lived and studied amongst the Kazakh eagle hunters of Western Mongolai ( traditional ones) for two years, first as a Fulbright Scholar and then as a PhD in Cultural Anthropology… was cited as saying ( in an article) that she believes the festival focussed eagles now may be producing “psychologically confused” eagles as per younger capture. She would be the one to ask what exactly she meant when she said that. I wish I could find the article again but its out there.. McGough also mentioned that the too-young captured eaglets cannot be released successfully back to the wild (To successfully to breed, according to Cowan). Again I am not sure the stats for this but if you read the studies you can find them or if you dig deeper.

      I think Nancy briefly mentioned that the eagle taken from the nest by Aisholpan was not as young as what she was talking about as “really young” and imprinted as it had been acclimatized to humans. She said it so quickly that it seemed like a glancing point. But I did hear that Aisholpan’s dad had visited that eagle’s nest several times before the eaglet was taken by Aisholpan and so that eagle first in contact was not with Aisholpan but with her father and was not completely new to human contact. This is what I was told by someone who is a completely reliable source. Aisholpan’s father would know it is a female. Also, knowing whether an eagle is female or male may be more readily apparent to the trained eye…perhaps it is immediately apparent without “checking”. Agalai had been to the nest to check on the eagle prior to the arrival of the filmmaker no matter if the filmmaker tries to present it otherwise. So when Aisholpan’s eagle is released…which should be when Aisholpan is about 19/20 (if my math is correct) it should be OK…(And used to drones too….that is another issue altogether).

      I caution that consumers of the film, in the sense that they may be inspired to travel to Western Mongolia to spend time with an eagle hunter family…need to be aware that some of the men are not really hunters, but eagle owners…and not all ‘showman’ or ‘ tourism hunters’ are going out hunting much, if at all ( see the Soma and Battulga study for stats ). I am hope more people become more scrupulous on both sides of the tourist-tourist entertainer equation. But it is so difficult to know who or what information to trust. Personally Inthink there should be a registry for traditional hunters who practice according to the traditional way….And ‘showman hunter’ who are dedicated to letning from them…So that the mere eagle owners can be shouldered out of the tourism roster. Hopefully with alternate ways of making money supported. Compassion for the economic vulnerability of the area must be a factor.

      As an aside and slight digression: Sony Pictures Classics promote Aisholpan falsely as having reached the “pinnacle of the tradition” which is false if not laughable and highly unlikely that even the young lady and her family would agree with that descriptor…If they know. And the promotion of Aisholpan also includes the false claim that she competed against “all the greatest hunters” at the festival which is false marketing of the festival and its constitution itself. In fact, the filmmaker et al. also suggested that the capture and release custom is always done, always at the right age, and is an alive and well custom….Where none of this is true according to research and instead is a, in my opinion, a whitewash for the commercial purposes he has in relation to selling his “girl power” product (Aisholpan). Which again, taken together, is irresponsible and false both culturally-speaking, documentary ethics-wise, let alone from an ecological standpoint.

      Regarding the use of the film to promote understanding and care about the golden eagles and their conservation…Much is contradictory in doing so in my opinion. The most the Director of the film says is that the eagle festival where Aisholpan competed is “A big thing. Who knew?!” and he makes no mention that it started in 2000, or why, and instead suggests the festival has gone on continuously for centuries. So “that’s Hollywood” and that’s advertising. The filmmaker has stated his secondary agenda was to help the tourism to the region. Mission accomplished. But at what cost? Greater tourism numbers umdoubtedly may pose greater risk to the eagle population itself as more people will want to capitalize on this. I hope viewers know this and I hope there is a conscientiousness about it.

      The studies and articles and ethnographic information is all findable. Overall, I highly recommend against aligning conservation education using this film as a prop at all…For a variety of reasons not the least of which it is contradictory unless mention of these further facts and studies is given so the picture is full and accurate.

      The festival is indeed fascinating and I do not want to discourage people from trying to see it/them. I do, however, hope for the tourism diversification I mentioned earlier.

      I hope that you realize the concern is more about the honoring of the true traditional hunters and those who emulate them and wish to really dedicate themselves to the full-on job of learning the art. Concern over the eagles is valid. Perhaps in ways you may not have guessed prior to reading this. My hope is that the true keepers of the traditional ways are honoured and that the influences of the marketplace are recognized and addressed.

      Aside from this, as a capture eagle takes 4-6 goats or sheep a year to feed, not everyone can commit to having one. And no traditional hunter would sanction the treating of an eagle cavalierly. The eagle is seen as a sacred animal to them. The global warming issue is seen as the primary concern for the continuation of the art because horses and herds are all a part of the ecology that keeps the nomadic eagle hunter herdsmen practicing their ancient art.

      I hope you appreciate my input. I appreciate your concern and encourage you to look into this more deeply and in a compassionate manner.

      Meghan Fitz-James (as mentioned in the article)


  2. keith1942

    Re ‘farm animals’, they are usually reared on the farm not kidnapped from the parental home.
    Roy is right though about ‘females’, the commentary did mention this. However, I did not notice out little huntress actually checking the gender when she scooped the chick out the next.


    • gaunletthrower

      I will send you some info on this when I get back to work. In the meantime, for what it is worth, I was told that Aisholpan’s father had visited the eagle’s nest several times before the eagle collection scene and so he and Aisholpan wpuld have known it was a female …And there may be ways to identify male from female quite readily amongst people who have worked with the birds over centuries and centuries. Stay tuned. Your concerns will shift and be educated once I provide you with the studies I have found.


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