By Meghan Fitz-James, Vancouver, B.C., Canada

Aisholpan Nurgaiv, of “The Eagle Huntress” documentary, and her parents were interviewed in Mongolia’s Udriin Sonin newspaper on January 21, 2016, before heading to Sundance Film Festival in the USA. Aisholpan’s mother, Almagul, said, “There is no restriction in our religion or culture to prohibit girls from hunting with an eagle. If she wants to, and if she can handle it, then she can do it.”

The aggressive thrust of “girl power” messaging in the documentary’s media marketing interviews performed up until a National Geographic interview dated August 4, 2016, suggested otherwise. In the IMDb film description, Aisholpan was described as a heroine breaking a “glass ceiling” and “fighting an ingrained culture of misogyny to become the first female Eagle Hunter in 2,000 years of male-dominated history”. In the Radio from Hell at Sundance 2016 interview, Aisholpan’s father, Agalai, is described by producer Stacey Reiss as “evolved” in his amenability to allowing her to participate.

Sundance interviews done by the Mountain Morning Show, LipTV, and Radio from Hell, all show Otto Bell, the NYC-based UK filmmaker, and his team working hard to ensure this female empowerment story is leveraged against a male obstacle or foil. Bell, however, has failed to carry out proper research on several counts. The male adversary he creates scarcely exists, in that other young females in Aisholpan’s community enjoy going out hunting with their fathers in the wintertime. This is according to what I learned from very informed locals living in Ulgii, and Bell’s own translator-guide, Dauit Ryskhan, via Stanford University historian Adrienne Mayor.

Aisholpan is also not the first eagle huntress in 2,000 years in her culture. Enter – amongst others – Makpal Abdrazakova, a champion Kazakh eagle huntress featured by Reuters US ahead of International Women’s Day 2012. Makpal started apprenticing at age 13 and precedes Aisholpan by over 14 years. Makpal noted it was a matter of her growing used to the eagle and then, “my father got the approval and blessing of elders for my berkutchi career.” Historian Adrienne Mayor’s article, “The Eagle Huntress: Ancient Traditions and New Generations” (published in an abbreviated version by BUST Magazine) shows that Aisholpan joins a legacy of other female eagle huntresses in modern history and in antiquity, and explains how she belongs to an egalitarian society.

When asked to describe Aisholpan’s culture during the Radio from Hell at Sundance 2016 “The Eagle Huntress” interview, Reiss made no mention of the tradition being Kazakh, and instead only mentioned the “first in 2,000 years in Mongolia”. Traditional hunting grounds span the Kazakhstan-Mongolia country border. This is not about nationality, but the Kazakh eagle hunting culture of which Aisholpan and her family are members.

The inadequacy of the research conducted by Israeli photographer and documentary filmmaker Asher Svidensky and Bell is outlined in Mayor’s article. In a March 2014 interview called “Mongolian TV interview- Asher Svidensky (part 1)”, Svidensky describes how he “discovered” Aisholpan. His stunning award-winning photos caught the attention of Bell and inspired him to secure filming rights. In an interview with Svidensky by Tseren Enebish, he said he then became Bell’s “helper” in the film making process. Both men have noted a wish to help Mongolian tourism via their work, and Svidensky leads tours in Mongolia.

Aisholpan was indeed the first female to compete at the Golden Eagle Festival (2014) and took home a big trophy. The fact that Aisholpan joins a legacy is no less compelling a narrative than if the then 13-year-old were the first-ever (or first place for that matter) young woman to do so. Her participation is laudable, brave, and very cool indeed, but it seems something funny happened on the way to the bank…

When I asked Bell for his response to the existence of Makpal, he tweeted on February 7, 2016, that she was news to him: “It’s great news! This adds to Aisholpan’s special story – the more empowered women out there, the better! Thanks from the team.” Yet he and his team have not ensured a recall of any of all of the “first in 2,000 years” statements still living online through various media outlets.

So how did Otto Bell miss such information in the course of his research? And what did his research involve? On April 29, 2016, when I accessed the complete version of Mayor’s article, the truth crystallized. From Mayor’s article:

“To add a sense of dramatic conflict to his storyline, Otto Bell sought out eagle hunting elders in Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan who would express opposition to girls becoming apprentice eagle hunters. As with Makpal, most eagle hunters approved, so Bell’s docu-drama shows a humorous montage of old men frowning and shaking their heads.”

“Otto Bell knew about Makpal in 2014 but he declined an offer to meet her, preferring to focus on his heartwarming story pitting one girl and her father against their male-dominated society.”

“In spring 2016, Bell indicated that it is not his responsibility to tell an ethnologically comprehensive story.”

“As co-producer, Asher Svidensky commented to me in early 2016, ‘Entertainment isn’t anthropology’.”

So, Bell deliberately omitted information so that it would not get in the way of his marketing scheme. He has also successfully misled Sony Classic Pictures in selling the documentary to them based on his storyline about Aisholpan as the first female conquering a glass ceiling of “misogynist” naysayers. Aisholpan joins a legacy as a member of an egalitarian society where interested females are not prohibited from eagle hunting. Despite his claim that she was news to him, Bell knowingly “erased” Makpal as a huntress forerunner and he scrounged for the male obstacle or foil in nearby countries. It is questionable whether he cares about female empowerment and accurate cultural and historical depictions.

I have learned that Bell hired a new publicist, the result of which is an August 4, 2016, National Geographic interview by Andrew Lapin. Bell has, for the first time, acknowledged the existence of other eagle huntresses in Aisholpan’s culture. He calls it a “fairly common mistake” not to know about others, but does not say it is a “mistake” that he himself has made. He does not say he knew of Makpal Abdrazakova, and turned down invitations to interview her: he was not asked. Ironic in his purported interest in girl power, his description trivializes her: “An older lady from Kazakhstan named Makpal Abdrazakova preceded [Aisholpan] in training an eagle.” He does not note that she too started at age 13, and is an accomplished eagle huntress festival champ. Thus, Makpal has been promoted from an erased woman, to one who is trivialized. Where is the girl power? Mayor and I attribute our separate writing (her research article and my Google Plus opinion essay), and mutual tweeting, all performed over the course of the last seven months to this significant first step. However, in the name of female and cultural empowerment, a proper acknowledgement of Makpal’s achievements is due.

Troublingly, the genesis story of Aisholpan becoming an eagle huntress conflicts with Svidensky’s version and that of the producer, Reiss, and remains an unaccounted for discrepancy. Reiss stated in the Radio From Hell interview that Aisholpan “kept asking and asking and asking and was persistent” to get her father to say yes to training her.

In Asher Svidensky’s interview with “Mongolian TV interview-Asher Svidensky (part 1)”, Svidensky described his photo project on next generation eagle hunters as a mix between a documentary and an art project. He thought hard about how to make it “more feminist, more strong”. He said he asked himself, “Why not have an eagle huntress… we went looking for it. And we found a girl named Aisholpan.” He showed Aisholpan’s father photos of her in Kazakh clothing and calling an eagle to herself in the mountains, and asked for his response. Agalai said it was good to see. Svidensky then asked, “Would you ever consider making her a real eagle huntress?” Agalai responded that his eldest son had left for the army and, therefore, he “had been thinking about training her for a very long time but would not offer it to her unless she asks for it because he felt it should come from her”. Svidensky concluded, “For me, that was like the answer for the project. Because that was it, I was thinking would it be possible for women to be the future of eagle hunting in Mongolia.”

Svidensky hunted for and found the eagle huntress- to-be, and Agalai was already open to the idea of being asked to train her. In which case, I cannot but wonder if the minor was then asked by Svidensky or his helper to ask.

Aisholpan at the Sundance Film Festival (photo from The LA Times)

Ethically, Aisholpan deserves for her life story to be truthfully portrayed by the filmmaker. Departures from actual events should be fully acknowledged and disclosed as such. Bell has never noted his documentary to be an extension of Svidensky’s aspiring art project. My current thinking is that Bell’s documentary omits a key character in Aisholpan’s true story: Asher Svidensky. I believe an explanation is in order. After all, Bell noted clearly – at least in the National Geographic interview – that he worked closely with Svidensky from the start.

Bell has never acknowledged how hard Aisholpan and her parents worked for him in the filming process, nor what hardships they experienced. Aisholpan missed school, the family routine was upturned, the minor and her father worked hard as actors, and there was the very problematic rights procurement process with an associated press conference. Bell has also not mentioned his use of re-enactment, although I witnessed the filming of one. My travel buddy and I witnessed Bell asking Aisholpan twice if she wanted to show her trophy to her class and she said no to him twice, firmly. Yet his response was to turn and tell his guide-translator, Ryskhan, “Get the trophy in case she changes her mind.” Aisholpan’s parents were not present in the room. Setting aside how this made us feel, I truly wonder what Bell means when he suggests his process was one of following. During Barbara J. King’s January 2016 interview with Bell called, “Teenage Eagle Huntress Overturns 2,000 Years of Male Tradition”, he says he did not feel he directed this film. Instead, he said, “this very visual way of life went on in front of me.”

I am not convinced that Bell has a full understanding about the impact of his filming and how it has, or will, affect Aisholpan and her community. My sense is that the chagrin Bell reports hearing from locals (National Geographic interview) is not necessarily aimed towards the teenager as an effort to minimize her accomplishments. An alternate reason may be the for-camera filming outcomes themselves. I have heard, for example, that in the observation of two unbiased sources, Aisholpan’s win at the eagle festival was a rigged one – for filming purposes. And I heard from a local that the arranged hunting scene struck him as an insulting joke: “Hunting with an eagle is not like pointing a gun!” The local, however, noted this was excusable as the film would be “good for tourism”. Money can work miracles.

During my three-day stay with Aisholpan’s lovely family right after the 2014 Golden Eagle Festival, I witnessed the unfolding of events with the discovery that Agalai had signed the 1USD exclusive rights all media life story contract without a shred of informed consent. Mongolian activist Tseren Enebish was at the family home as Almagul wondered what the contract meant, and she had other concerns she wished to air. When interviewed by Tseren, Almagul said she did not really even understand the purpose of the filming.

While Bell’s rights procurement was celebrated in Variety, his process was clearly exploitative of Agalai’s ignorance about paper contracts. Almagul described it in her interview with Tseren. She said Agalai told her he was told, “Here, sign this”, and so he did. Tseren attempted unsuccessfully to interview Bell before leaving the home to expose this issue online. On Star TV’s “Talk with Me” November 2014 interview with Tseren, lawyer-hostess Allyson Seaborn noted the contract “would have absolute no validity in a court of law”. The contract was verbally presented, in English only, and witnessed by Bell’s own staff.

This procurement process and other problematic filming process-related issues escaped proper ministerial oversight by former Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism and MP Ts.Oyungerel, and were brought to her attention by Tseren. It was a very brave decision for her to expose the exploitative act, especially as it related to a vulnerable minor and her minority nomadic family. Bell had the courtesy to let me know in a private exchange that the filming contract was “redone” and the happy family was “fully on board.” But there has been no public shrift on the filmmaker’s part to put other concerned minds at rest. Bell’s resume suggests he should have known better: his award-winning work history includes creating compelling narratives for corporations, and his Kickstarter bio notes he has produced and directed documentary films in over 20 countries around the world for global brands such as IBM, DuPont, and Philips.

An important redress, I believe, is the provision of an unbiased, non-governmental lawyer specializing in entertainment law to verify that the signed contracts are in Aisholpan’s best interests regarding fair remuneration, informed consent, and marketing. This would ensure Aisholpan’s rights despite subjective concerns about perceived ingratitude. It is crucial that Aisholpan and family have the freedom to speak about the filmmaking process and marketing. I suspect they do not. In the Hollywood Reporter article “‘Ice Age’ Director Chris Wedge to Helm ‘Eagle Huntress’ for Fox Animation (Exclusive)” it was noted that Bell’s lawyer stated that Bell realized in 2014 that he could option his documentary for animation, which would be very profitable. He and executive producer Morgan Spurlock focused their professional expertise acutely to target a family audience (enter fuzzy eagles in the cup holders at Sundance). Yet there is an evident economic and sociopolitical power disadvantage for Aisholpan and her family in their role as darlings to the Mongolian tourism and girl power film industries. Choice, informed consent, and Aisholpan’s voice deserve more than lip service
to illustrate the notion of empowerment.

Lastly, the vast majority of social media releases misspell Aisholpan’s name as Ashol Pan based on spelling by Bell and Svidensky. Aisholpan means “Morning Star”. In Kazakh, “ai” means “moon” and “sholpan” translates to “Venus” or “bright”. Venus is referred to as the Morning Star when it is situated by the moon in the morning sky. I learned the meaning of this beautiful name by asking her mother, double-checking with a Kazakh-Mongolian friend, and looking it up online; you know, fact-checking.

Sony Pictures Classics will release the documentary as a feature film on October 28, 2016, and 20th Century Fox will release their CG animation some time following this. I agree with Adrienne Mayor: “The film makers have misrepresented the historical independence of women in Kazakh and Mongolian culture…. It is to be hoped that once the film’s producers, publicists, and distributor are aware of the facts, they will decide to present Aisholpan’s experience and her culture more honestly… Her story is inspiring enough without being cast as a struggle against male oppression.” The aforementioned August 2016 National Geographic interview reflects a significant change in Bell’s toning down of his description of the men of the culture as having “a healthy dose of machismo”. To my great glee, I noticed on August 10 that the IMDb descriptor of “ingrained misogyny” in the film’s official plotline description had been removed. It now reads, “a 13-year-old nomadic Mongolian girl who is fighting to become the first female eagle hunter in twelve generations of her Kazakh family”. However, sobering to the reality, the fix is incomplete. The IMDb description still states that Aisholpan is “first in 2,000 years of male-dominated culture”. Bell needs to ensure a recall of media where false and culturally misrepresentative claims are made. This one National Geographic interview may be subsumed very easily by the sheer volume of all the others that continue to live online.

Aisholpan deserves to be the star she is for more – far more – reasons than the documentary and the girl power film industry recognize.

In navigating her life and fame, I wish all the best to the true star, Aisholpan, Morning Star.