There’s Eagle Scout, Fly Like an Eagle, Eagle Eye, Where Eagles Dare, and the Eagle has Landed.
And then there’s the Eagle Huntress. Her name is Aisholpan...and she’s quite the Ambassador for International Women’s Day. Hers is a story of feminism, courage, independence...and sisterhood bonding.
Most young girls have an affinity for puppies…or ponies. Their eyes widen at the sight of a golden retriever, golden doodle or golden-maned percheron. Not Aisholpan. This Mongolian girl has a most unique compadre: a golden eagle. True—Hedwig (Harry Potter), Meeko (Pocahontas), Baxter (Anchorman) and Chewbacca (Star Wars) may be phenomenal fictional sidekicks, but this one is for real.
Hogwarts, move over. Aisholpan is all about true wizardry -- flying her majestic bird Akkainat (White Wings), whose 8 ½’ wingspan is almost double her height.
OASIS IN THE DESERT
Let’s face it. We’ve overdosed on fake news, Netflix binging, bitter twitter, accusations of Russian interference and wiretappings, White House briefings, and the daily Dow. We could all use a detour from selfie madness, chirping pundits, and melodramatic Hollywood hotties. From Executive Orders, recusals and red carpets.
We need a breath of fresh air amidst the crush and glum of urban living. Aisholpan is indeed a breath of fresh mountain air, trekking and riding into snow and ice in the majestic Mongolian wilderness.
True, Ansel Adams and Edward Weston did some stunning images of dune patterns and natural wonders. But photojournalist Asher Svidensky’s got some astonishing shots that would make Annie Leibovitz cry with joy.
ADOLESCENCE EFFERVESCENCE: KATY vs. KAZAKH KHARMA
Yup. For most teenagers it’s about Katy Perry and first kisses; BFF’s and first bras. For Aisholpan, it was all about her first eagle hunt: with White Wings. We’ve all heard kids dreaming of Hollywood, fantasizing their some-day Oscar moment, delivering imaginary acceptance speeches into their microphone fists. As a little girl in Mongolia, Aisholpan dreamt of flying an eagle like her Dad. No malls, no Shake Shacks. Nope. Just mountains, tents, gers, and goats. Aisholpan was born into a Kazakh family of nomad herders going back 12 generations. To supplement their income, Kazakh herders have a side career: training golden eagle chicks to hunt fox and game.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE DAUGHTER
The daughter of celebrated hunter Agalai Nurgaiv, young Aisholpan got home-eagle-schooled young. Captivated by the bond between her father and his hawk, she followed them everywhere, observing the mesmerizing duo. As a baby, she crawled, undaunted, towards her Dad’s eagles. Intriguingly, Kazakhs prefer female birds because they are fiercer, larger, more powerful hunters — their wingspan can exceed seven feet.
Although the eagle hunt is a primarily male-dominated sport in Nurgaiv’s community, Agalai kept the paternal faith, trusting Aisholpan could do anything a boy could do. His son, while training to be the successor falconer of the ancient family tradition, was drafted into the army. Agalai was willing to start the five-year training process with Aisholpan, under one condition: that she initiate the wish. Not only did she crave capturing and training an eagle, but she was determined to compete in the annual Golden Eagle Festival in Ölgii.
Sure, we all know pop culture, in-the-limelight father-daughter pairs: Paul & Stella McCartney; Brian & Allison Williams; Will & Willow Smith; Lionel & Nicole Ritchie; and, of course, Donald & Ivanka Trump.
And, if it weren’t for a touch of international and cinematic destiny, we might never have known about Aisholpan and Agalai Nurgaiv. After all, it seems cool enough to have a father-daughter bond over a regal, historic, elegant, exotic sport. But to have the fortune of capturing the story on film by a determined documentarian? Priceless.
OTTO’S MOTTO — FOR WHOM THE BELL CURVES
Enter Otto Bell, a Northumberland-born farm lad with a burning curiosity. Outdoorsman, Oxford scholar, journalist, world traveler and Ridley Scott fan, Bell seems a boyish blend of Ernest Hemingway and Ernest Shackleton — a seamless storyteller and passionate explorer with a risk-taking spirit and pathfinder soul. Obstacles of distance, climate, and funds were all just part of the hunt. Traversing the globe, jumping hoops to find Aisholpan in rural Han Gohadok, Mongolia, was merely the first step.
FELICITY OF SYNCHRONICITY — EAGLE TIMING IS EVERYTHING
With apologies to Lemony Snicket, Otto Bell’s journey to get The Eagle Huntress made was like a SERIES OF FORTUNATE EVENTS…and accidental coincidences, if such a thing exists. Consider the randomness of landing on a website, discovering Israeli Asher Svidensky’s sumptuous photo diary of the Eagle Huntress Project (http://www.svidensky.com/projects/the-eagle-huntress), setting the next three years of his life in motion.
As they say in Yiddish, it was bashert (meant to be). It was written in the stars…or perhaps in the steppes. The minute Otto hooked eyes with the 13-year old Mongolian girl beaming blissfully across the diameter of his PC screen, he was hooked. Seeing her smiling down proudly at her prize possession — a golden eagle perched staunchly on her arm — he seized the moment.
Invoking his inner David Attenborough, Bell was off on a hunt of his own, seemingly ruled by an international harmony of the spheres. From that first glance of Aisholpan amidst her vast landscape, he knew he had a film in the works. Otto’s visit to the family to discuss a possible documentary happened to coincide with a crucial raid on a nearby eagle’s nest to poach a baby eaglet she could train from scratch. “Would Otto like to join them?” Does Mongolia start with an M?
Not to get all Socrates or Plato on you, but it seems like the pre-determined journey that started with a finger swipe and a surfnet. What followed was a connect-the-dots path of “it-had-to-happen-like-this-ness.”
Bell‘s uncanny timing in discovering Asher and Aisholpan; in choosing which day in what month to visit her family; in sending early footage to producer Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me) — all enticed Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) to come onboard as narrator; and oh yes, allured a soundtrack song (Angel by the Wings) by musician Sia. Soon after, Sundance voted The Eagle Huntress a festival prizewinner, and Sony Classic Pictures acquired the rights (http://sonyclassics.com/theeaglehuntress/ ).
FLYING IN THE FACE OF LOGIC
With a wink to Aristotle (the Father of Logic), with virtually no funds and no feature documentary background, Bell located Asher Svidensky, then convinced an American cameraman into joining them on the trek to find the girl. Against all odds — plunking down a chunk of his life savings (almost $80,000) to make the film, surviving the frigid days, weeks and months of Mongolian sub-zero temps on several trips back and forth to Mongolia, a broken arm, gathering and maintaining an exhausted crew, enduring extremities frozen to the tripod, and dead batteries, to name just a few — a determined Bell persisted on the path of filming young Aisholpan’s rapturous Adventures in Mongolia-land. Only there was no Red Queen or Mad Hatter.
Alice, Aisholpan and Independence
It all seems a Mongolian Wonderland. Mad Hatters, Caterpillars and Red Queens aside, Aisholpan never fell down a fantasy rabbit hole like Alice. Instead, she climbed down a real cliff tied to a rope to tenderly snatch her first three-month old chicklet from its nest (Step #1 in Eagle Hunting). And yes, it really happened on July 4.
July 4. The date we celebrate America’s Independence (July 4, 1776), and the very date (July 4, 1862) that Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, first told the famous children’s story to his 10-year old muse, Alice Liddell.
WHOA, GO SLOW IN SNOW, GO-PRO: IT TAKES CREW TO TANGO
It was as if the Cheshire Cat was smiling over that film crew. Bell just couldn’t resist his first eaglet-steal. Photographer Svidensky shot his first-ever video footage from a ledge parallel to the nest, with Bell at his side. Cameraman Christopher Raymond filmed from below. Bell actually strapped a Go-Pro camera onto Aisholpan, who had to scale the cliff from higher up. Apparently Bell wondered if her pigtails would get in the way, but the crew captured “that circling motion she does with her hands, when the eaglet becomes what I call hypnotized.” The mystique of that day must have rivaled any mad tea parties Alice ever encountered in Wonderland.
Originality’s the name of Otto’s film crew game. To wit, Bell designed an “eagle cam” from a dog’s harness, and strapped it right onto White Wings. Simon Niblett, Director of Photography, arrived “on set” with his own creative equipment: a drone he built to accommodate his camera, and a crane invention that folded into a small bag.
Bell even swooped from the technical to the psychological, hiring a female cinematographer into the all-male crew. Martina Radwan spent weeks living with the Nurgaiv family, helping to make Asholpan feel comfortable enough to “let her hair down” in front of the camera.
3M: MYTHICAL, MODERN, MONGOLIAN
Aisholpan’s coming-of-age story is an inspiring, modern tale of an ancient art: eagle hunting. Just perfect for Women’s History Month. Perhaps the passion for trekking over the rocky terrain of Central Asia is in her genes.
The tradition of nomads using eagles to hunt on horseback traces back to 9th century BC, showing up in art, literature and archaeology — appearing in Hittite reliefs, the writings of Aristotle (4th century BC) and Marco Polo (1200’s ), who described “a great number of eagles..trained to catch wolves, foxes, deer and wild goats.” (The Travels of Marco Polo, Book 2)
Evidence of falconry mittens on the hands of huntresses (female burkitshi) have emerged among the preserved Urumqui mummies from 3rd century BC. History books illustrate nomad females in eagle riding and hunting activities across ancient Scythia from Ukraine to China, and about 1/3 of the women were active warriors. Fast forward to the 21st century. Today young women like Makpal Abdrazakova of Kazakhstan have been training, hunting with eagles, and trickling into competition festivals in Nura and Ulgii, encouraging more young girls in this golden female bond.
AAA - ARIEL, AURORA or AISHOLPAN? FAIRY TALES CAN COME TRUE
Yup. This could be a fairy tale except for the fact that it’s real. Falconry may be the sport of Kings, and in truth there was a real princess who had an eagle in 1932: Princess Nirgidna.
But in this life story, there’s no royal castle, just a ger yurt. No Cinderella, no prince, no glass slipper. No Little Mermaid or Sleeping Beauty. No Rapunzel, Mulan, Tiana or Pocahontas.
Nope. It’s Aisholpan, an all-Mongolian girl, living in a village tucked in a rural landscape worthy of a Wyeth, Hopper or Yuan Dynasty painting. She’s a rare breed female teenager with a passion to hunt and train eagles on horseback. She films at 40 below, at 5,000 feet above sea level, braving freezing cold, ice, and never complains. Her mission: to prove herself a true eagle huntress.
TRIUMPH OF TRIANGLES
As Otto explains, the three major elements in this cinematic tri-fecta are the Bird; the Mountains; and the Girl. I always loved the elegance of geometry (I even had a secret crush on Euclid), so the image of an iscosceles
triangle transformed into these three powerful “equilateral “ sides made me wonder if the Pythagorean theorem applied to hunting as well as hypotenuses.
Whether or not you’re a numerology fiend, 16 is pretty darn symbolic. Abe Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States; Apostle Paul states 16 things about the quality of love that God wants us to have; the Old Testament counts 16 prophets and the New Testament counts 16 apostles and evangelists; the Avator, in the Hindu religion, has 16 specific gifts including omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience.
January 2016 was the year The Eagle Huntress evolved: Sundance recognized the film; SONY Classics stepped in; the film got a foreign sales agent; and Bell arranged for the family to become profit participants, creating a fund in her name for Aisholpan’s higher education. Then the Hamptons Film Festival prize was generously donated to Aisholpan’s family. And, of course on May 3, Aisholpan turns Sweet 16.
STAR-CROSSED & STAR WARS-CROSSED
It makes perfect sense that Aisholpan shares her birthday (May 3) with some other pioneer women – including Golda Meir and civil rights activist Septima Poinsette Clark. (For equality’s sake, please note that her male birthday mates are not too shabby either: Bing Crosby, James Brown, Pete Seeger, and Sugar Ray Robinson).
And Daisy Ridley’s character, REY, in Star Wars, parallels Aisholpan’s character – someone who never doubts her ability to be as strong or courageous as any boy.
THE FEAT TO COMPETE — A WIN AND A PRAYER
She may be giggly with her girlfriends (revealed on film thanks to cinematographer Radwan), but Aisholpan is fiercely competitive. She loves to win — in checkers, in wrestling with boys, and at eagle festivals. It’s a male tradition of traveling hundreds of miles to celebrate with regional competitions.
Aisholpan was the first one in her family, first in her community, first woman to enter the Golden Eagle Festival championship in Bayan-Olgii..and the first to WIN — againt 70 veterans, to boot!
Aisholpan’s win was especially phenomenal. With the fastest time in the festival’s history — a record-setting 5 seconds for calling (a skill that tests the bond between hunter and eagle).
Apparently winning is in her blood. When Bell introduced her to the California ocea, they stopped at the Santa Monica pier to play some carnival games. She took her first shot, and won!
AMBER WAVES OF GOING AGAINST THE GRAIN
Katharine Lee Bates may have written the lyrics “purple mountain majesties” in America the Beautiful, but I wonder if she ever travelled to Mongolia. Her words could be describing the Rockies in Colorado…or the Altai Mountains in the Gobi Desert.
3 STEPS FORWARD, 0 STEPS BACK
Once again, the mystery of THREE echoes amongst the cavernous cliffs of falcon-rithmetic. Otto describes the steps: 1) snatching an eaglet from its nest; 2) training the bird – feeding, partnering, imprinting one’s voice on it; demonstrating the bond between hunter and bird; entering festivals; and 3) taking the bird out “in the field” -- into the mountains in winter and hunting successfully.
Otto explains that In the normal sequence of documentary filmmaking, often “one relies on archives...talking heads and interviews (can help) fill in the blanks.” But Bell was lucky enough on his intuition to get there at the beginning, to witness Step # 1 in the film’s arc — the FLASH POINT.
When I ask about his philosophy of life, Bell responds without a blink. “Perseverance. It was actually Aisholpan’s DETERMINATION that inspired me to push on. Who was I to complain about cold? She always found a way, in the snow, with a heavy bird. I had to reach the end point....I was compelled to finish.“
HAWK WALKS and TED TALKS
Listen. I’ve done my fair share of falcons-on-the-wrist-ing….I’ve even trekked up to the British School of Falconry at the Equinox in Manchester, Vermont and gone on wake-up-at-dawn hawk walks in the woods with Rob Waite (http://www.greenmountainfalconryschool.com/). I’ve learned hawking terms like “furniture” — not something sold at Ethan Allen, but bewits, bells, and hand-stitched hoods — and studied bird behavior like cowering, casting and creance.
However, as feisty as I may have felt, pushing myself to the outer limits of my so-called stamina, none of my pluck measured up to a fraction of the fortitude and focus of Aisholpan.
Since education is high on her family’s priority list (she is currently studying Turkish, English, and has scholarships to three top Ölgii high schools), I can visualize Aisholpan with a blackboard, chalk and pointer, teaching young girls in rural communities and inner cities the basic life lessons: persistence, optimism, tenacity and stick-tui-tiveness.
Aisholpan’s dream is to become a surgeon. And since tradition requires Aisholpan to release her cherished eagle Akkainat back to the wild after seven years, the timing will be perfect for her to study medicine abroad. Until then, White Wings will live, train and hunt with her. Simultaneously, she will be carrying on the family tradition, teaching her brother and sister the skills of the trade.
So, in honor of International Women’s Day, I nominate Aisholpan as the next featured Ted Talk-er (or perhaps Theodora Talk-er). She’s a natural in the classroom, at the lectern, or on a mountaintop. I can see it now – beaming her in from the mountains of Mongolia to thousands of college lecture halls from Heythrop to Harvard.
JUST SAY YES
The Eagle Huntress paints dramatic and personal brushstrokes, contrasting the elders’ rigidity with the young schoolgirls’ free spiritedness; the intimacy of family tea-sipping conversations set against the backdrop of massive Mongolian landscapes. Along the way there were plenty of naysayers. Otto Bell faced many skeptics who questioned his project. But Bell saw the mythical, timelessness of the photos; he was touched by the “prehistoric images of the huge birds, the mountains. Objectively, it looked cinematic.” He listened to his gut instinct, and to his fiancé, Cayte, who was steadfast and immensely supportive. She told him to ignore the doubters. He moved forward.
Bell reminds me of those renowned problem-solvers and adventurers: jumping in, mastering physics, bypassing logic, braving the elements and forging onward…
3M: MONGOLIAN MOJO MAGIC
You might not know it, but lots of stuff you might know is Mongolian. Genghis Khan (13th century emperor), for instance. He issued a Yass (Executive Order) for penalties of spying and desertion. Kublai Khan (Genghis’ grandson). The Gobi Desert. Snow leopards (native to Mongolia). The Great Wall of China (built in 6th century in Inner Mongolia). The yurt —made famous in Woodstock but common nomad dwellings in Mongolia — called a GER. If Little Miss Muffet had travelled to Mongolia, she would have loved Aaruul, a favorite snack made from dried curd. Steamed dumplings (BUUZ) are filled with beef or mutton. And the TAKHI horses (Mongol word for spirit) with 66 chromosomes (two more than the average horse) are the last truly wild ponies on planet. Think Mongolian Misty of Chincoteague.
EGGS, OMELETTES & CHICKLETS
Roy Chapman Andrews may have first discovered dinosaur eggs in the Gobi (which allegedly inspired the creation of Indiana Jones), so the seeds (or should I say egg shells) were there for further animal exploration. In Mongolia, seven generations of falconers have been poaching eaglets from their mother’s nest to trap, train and fly their priceless hawks.
THE EAGLETS & THE BIRDS
The gripping (no pun intended) images of Aisholpan being lowered down a cliff on a rope tenderly trying to snatch the young fragile bird are as suspenseful as any Alfred Hitchcock movie I’ve ever seen. Enchanted by the footage, and by the young girl’s perseverance, Bell edited a short reel of photos and sent it to documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, who burst into action. You might say the golden eagle had the golden touch.
(Spurlock later signed on as Executive Producer, along with Warrier Poets (http://warrior-poets.com/), Daisy Ridley, producers Stacy Reiss, Sharon Chang and editor Pierre Takal. The Eagle Huntress, a Sony Classics release (http://sonyclassics.com/theeaglehuntress/), was short-listed for the Oscars; nominated for BAFTA, PGA and DGA awards; and, Otto Bell was named one of Variety’s annual “Ten Directors to Watch”).
AISHOLPAN ALPHABET: A. pprentice B. eauty C.harisma D.iligence E.xuberance F.alconress
Trekking through the rugged mountainous terrain and frigid temperatures of the Mongolian winter landscape is an inspiration that defies normal vocabulary. Sierra Club outings and mini-marathons may be fatiguing to most of us gasping treadmill joggers, but this takes Cardio Workout to a whole new level.
We’ve heard about expeditions up Mount Kilimanjaro, from adult alpha males and females alike…but the drive and clarity in one so young seems to be an incarnation of purity and purpose.
TAKEN UNDER WING
If not for Aisholpan’s grit, there would be no story. And a big part of that is bonding — “sisterhood bonding” with her eagle White Wings; father/daughter bonding with her father, a true mentor, willing to train and encourage her so she can prove herself a true hunter. Agalai Nurgaiv took Aisholpan under his wing the way Asholpan took her bird under hers…and, by the way, White Wings has his own wingspan that one can‘t sneeze at.
Let’s just say Asholpan is hardly winging it…she’s taking on every hurdle like a trouper, like a teen gymnast training for the Olympics.
Aisholpan is a role model teenager - girly sweet and giggly, yet calm, confident, persevering, and wise. She’s a magnificent role model for girls, the same way Serena Williams is for Women’s Tennis, and Mia Hamm is for Women’s Soccer.
International Women’s Day MTV - M.avericks, T.railblazers & V.isionaries
Extraordinary women with a mission have been spotlighted in the news lately — politicians, athletes, artists and activists, from Gloria Steinem to Coretta Scott King, Marine Le Pen, Lady Gaga, Carli Lloyd and Carrin Owens. We all know about the historical feminists Betty Friedan, Sacajawea, abolitionist Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, writers Simone de Beauvoir and Gertrude Stein.
But one young modern crusader with a lesser-known profile is Aisholpan. Not only is she a maverick trailblazer, but she’s only 15. Tennis heroine Jennifer Capriati debuted at 14; gymnast Mary Lou Retton at 16, but Aisholpan represents a category just a tad rarer than most of our all-American sports: eagle hunting.
Aisholpan belongs to that set of noble, take-a-stand, trailblazing women we honor on International Women’s Day for their valuable contributions to history and society. Perhaps she should take on the entire international anti-bullying movement, with her incredible poise, optimism and focus.
I propose a toast to the young global movers and shakers, specifically the enchanting eagle huntress, Aisholpan.
CONFUCIUS SAY “Y CHWING” - SPORT OF KINGS & GIRL GURU THINGS
Dalai Lama & Deepak Chopra, make room on the spiritual couch. There’s a new kid in town. Aisholpan didn’t have to train in Qi Gong, Transcendental Meditation or Zen. Instead she instinctively chose to go where thousands of boys had gone before — for over 2000 years.
I remain transfixed by the fearless, focused soul of young Aisholpan, the soaring of spirit, the majesty of her eagle, the stand for female rights and rites of passage, the purity of her girlhood dream, the depth of her wisdom.
I don’t imagine she’s read Joseph Campbell’s Follow Your Bliss...and yet Aisholpan never wavered. She visualized, verbalized and vibrated falconry from Day One...with the vision, fortitude, and grit of a girl guru.
Buddha - eat your heart out.