Talking to the Teen Huntress and Breakout Star of This Year's Buzziest Documentary
“Dear girls, you can do anything.” That’s the number-one piece of advice that teen hunting heroine Aisholpan Nurgaiv wishes she could tell fellow young women. And she would know. Aisholpan is from Mongolia, where girls don’t hunt. But she didn’t care and wasn’t about to let tradition—or societal gender norms—stop her. Now she’s the star of BAFTA-nominated documentary, The Eagle Huntress, all because she wouldn’t give up.
In her community, eagle hunting is a way of life...for men, anyway. “Eagle hunting has a history of about 2,000 years,” Aisholpan explained when we interviewed her through a translator. “It is a unique Kazakh tradition that has been passed down from our ancestors.” The ancient practice involves training the massive birds to hunt for foxes, often on horseback, usually in -50 degree weather. Sound intense? It is. But physical challenges aside, she knew she wanted to learn—even though she was young. “The first time I was interested in hunting with eagles was when I had the chance to feed the eagle and pet her,” the teen remembered. “She seemed like such a brave animal.”
Aisholpan, too, had to be brave to make it happen. She convinced her dad to teach her how to hunt, even though it raised a lot of eyebrows where she's from. “My father’s friends were a little bit against me. They told me girls cannot hunt with eagles," she said. She proved every last one of them wrong, and director Otto Bell’s cameras were there to capture it all. The Eagle Huntress documents the shyly confident teen's rise to the top—quite literally, since a lot of eagle hunting happens at the top of Mongolian mountains.
It feels like an IRL Disney princess movie, if Disney princesses were badasses who refused to take no for an answer and casually hunted with eagles perched on their arms. The movie is as visually stunning as the animated faves you grew up watching; even if documentaries aren’t your thing, you’ll dig The Eagle Huntress because it feels like an IRL fairy tale. It’s an uplifting, empowering “eff-yeah” doc, right down to Sia’s battle-cry of a song that closes the film. And we could all use a little of that right about now.
Sia's not the only star attached to the doc. Aisholpan got to hang out with Daisy Ridley, who both narrated and, in another nod to girl power, executive produced the documentary. “Meeting with Daisy was so fun,” she said. “We had such long conversations. She taught me some things that I cannot learn from others. She is a nice person.”
When we asked how she feels about being a Mongolian eagle hunter turned Hollywood star, she was as self-effacing as she is in the movie. “I have never thought of myself as a star,” she said, smiling. And while being the lead of a much-talked-about flick has had its perks—not everyone gets to hang out with Daisy Ridley like it’s NBD—don’t expect her to be back on the big-screen anytime soon. She hopes to attend university and become a doctor, and given that her life motto is “be brave and keep moving forward no matter what happens," we have no doubt she'll make it happen. In the meantime, we'll be co-opting those words of wisdom for ourselves.