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TAKING FLIGHT - Acclaimed Documentary "The Eagle Huntress" Challenged Societal Convention, The Elements And A Brutally Tight Budget

Posted By Chris Pfaff, Friday, February 10, 2017

It was a single image, but its purity and iconic background led to a quest that would have made Marco Polo blush. Most documentary producers start a project with a single story thread that embodies a larger narrative. In the case of PGA member Otto Bell, it was a single photo on Facebook that led to him boarding a plane to Outer Mongolia to chase the subject of his first documentary feature, The Eagle Huntress, which was recently nominated for a Producers Guild Award. The story, which tracks a 13-year-old girl’s gender-busting performance as a record-breaking eagle huntress, the first woman in her tribe’s centuries of training massive eagles to hunt foxes for their valuable pelts, has captured the spirits of audiences worldwide and is a tale of documentarian passion as well.

“I saw a Facebook post that led me to a photo essay on the BBC’s website. That was Asher Svidensky’s incredible photos of Aisholpan, the girl who would become the center of my life for more than a year,” says Bell, who was working at the agency Ogilvy’s branded entertainment unit when he first alighted on the idea of making a film about Aisholpan. “I was so taken with the story of Aisholpan and the photos. I immediately looked up Asher on Facebook to talk to him about making a film.” Turns out his instincts were correct: The journalist who wrote up the piece, William Kremer, later attended a screening at the London Film Festival with his mother. “He told me that photo essay was the most-trafficked page, outside of breaking news, on the entire BBC site for all of 2014,” Bell reports.

“I had been making documentary-style shorts for seven to eight years,” he continues, “and I was finally ready for a project without client interference or ‘brand objectives.’ At that time, I had gotten into the habit of looking at everything I read, or saw, through the lens of a film, even while walking down the street.

“I was profoundly moved by the images that Asher took. They were beautiful—like paintings. There was a more objective part of me that felt they had the ingredients for a good film. Photos break apart for me. I was looking at the background and I saw these incredible stories within the images. Outer Mongolia is the most remote part of the least-populated country in the world, so the logistics of even contemplating a film production were incredible.”

After contacting Svidensky, Bell had a Skype session with him and shortly thereafter boarded a plane to Mongolia. He was filming at the time in Egypt with a cameraman, Chris Raymond, and brought him along with Svidensky in tow.

Bell, who produced the filming portion of the film himself and acted as director, soon found himself in the Altai Mountains in the northwest part of Mongolia.

Producer and director Otto Bell (center) with Aisholpan (L of center) and siblings, as well as cameraman Christopher Raymond (back)

“I said to Chris Raymond, ‘I cannot pay you.’” Bell recounts. “We had been filming a commercial in Cairo, and Chris, me, and Asher went for the first trip. From a production point of view, it’s an unforgiving location. Tough place to logistically set up a shoot. You fly into Ulan Battar, the capital city, from Beijing or Moscow. You land there and you have to wait a few days. Aisholpan’s region is Ulgii—and Ulgii is the provincial capital. Only two flights a week go to this little town, via a twin-prop plane.”  On one occasion, Bell had to leave 200 kilos of the gear in a locked room at the Ulan Battar airport, as the twin-prop plane could not take off with passengers and the gear.

 “The first location was so spectacular—with purples and reds in the sky at sunset and Aisholpan training with her father’s eagle. The eagle is part of the largest species of golden eagle in the world. They have 7 to 8-foot wingspans; they are massive and prehistoric in scale. I thought that this was an exotic setting overall. And of course, Aisholpan has this beautiful presence, with an angelic face and a strong profile.”

Finding the family required driving around the steppe where the nomadic hunters set up their ger, or yurt. The hospitable tribespeople, who are quite used to welcoming rugged individualist tourists and amateur photographers, welcomed Bell with some hard cheese and tea and told him where to find Aisholpan and her family.

“I was hoping that the family would be alright with me filming. I should not have worried, as they are used to having a few intrepid tourists making their way to their door. Nurgaiv, the Dad, was really cool with the whole idea, and he then said to me, ‘Well, we will steal an eagle for Aisholpan this afternoon.’”

Bell had only a narrow window in which to capture the pivotal scene where Aisholpan secures her eagle, as the birds only have a few days after being born before they start to leave the nest.

“I had thought that I would capture this moment, which became the centerpiece of the first act,” Bell recalls, “and I thought I would get a sizzle reel to show to financiers. And then this moment with the baby eagle happened. We had to jump on it. So I went into planning the production and mapping out how we were going to shoot it. It was happening that afternoon. This is where I am happy being a producer and director. It works seamlessly together.”

Things got interesting when Bell and cameraman Raymond, who is afraid of heights, approached the cliff face where they had to capture the eagle-snatching scene.

“Chris wouldn’t climb up the cliff. He had a C-300 camera at the time. I drew out the scene on a notepad. I put Chris at the bottom of the cliff to get my wide shot– my safety–of the whole experience. And the nest itself was shot by Asher with me doing sound over his shoulder with a Xoom recorder. Trouble was, Asher had never shot video before—only stills. I said to him, ‘Just turn your Canon 1-D to video and keep focus and keep it sharp.’ He and I went up the hill with the family and there was this outcrop of rocks and this ledge, and we nearly killed ourselves getting onto the ledge. I found this GoPro camera at the bottom of my rucksack and I put it underneath Aisholpan’s cardigan sweater to get those POV shots where you feel like you’re inside the nest. So in total we shot the scene from three angles. The whole thing was one take —12 minutes. I had the mother eagle circling overhead, and mind you this is our first afternoon filming so we didn’t have our rhythm down yet, we hadn’t worked out the translation flow so we were just purely observing this amazing feat.”

Ben Crossley and Otto Bell prep their drone for takeoff.

After the first visit, Bell realized that he had to capture the landscape of this remote part of Mongolia more thoroughly and called his longtime collaborator, Simon Nibblet, the primary DP on the film.

“I knew I needed a birdseye view and needed to get airborne to show the landscape from above. I had produced and directed films with Simon for about eight years. We have done 10 to 12 productions together shooting in a wide range of locations, from Uganda to Vietnam to Hokkaido, Japan. Simon is a real inventor and a pioneer of drone photography. Years ago he used model helicopter parts to build one of the first drones capable of carrying a RED camera. He made me a 9-meter crane that is based on a ship mast, which folds away into a snowboard bag. That is how we got those swooping aerial shots we got.” 

 Nibblet also helped create a tracking rig out of the aging van the crew used to get around—literally roping open the side door to get an unobstructed view for their Ronin Steadicam rig. In the 300 hours of footage shot, Bell and his team used a hodgepodge of cameras, which ran from Sony A7s to the Pocket Blackmagic to the principal camera, the RED Epic. The team also used a C-300, Canon 1D and GoPro. Principal photography wrapped in February, 2015.

Aisholpan’s victory at the annual eagle hunting festival, where she beat 70 men and set a record in one of the categories, was shot over two days and became a turning point in the narrative of the film, stunning the male hunter elders of the village and the crew alike.

“I had shot two rounds of interviews with these elders, on two different visits,” Bell continues. “Even though there had been a handful of eagle huntresses over the centuries, Aisholpan was unique in her region and her tribe and had outshone everyone else. These elders put on their ceremonial furs and sat down with me, and they would tell me about traditional women’s duties and how no woman should ever be an eagle huntress. I noticed them all saying ‘Jokk,’ which means ‘no’ in Kazakh and built a montage in my mind that ended up in the final film. When she won the tournament, they all came up with excuses for her performance, like ‘Oh, her Dad’s a great coach; her bird is exceptional,’ but they refused to believe she could be a real hunter without having hunted during winter. That was what I needed to capture.”

The crew prepares to grab a tracking shot.

In a traditional sports-related documentary, the film might have ended with a natural moment of victory, in which the athlete holds up the trophy, and the picture fades to black. Bell wanted to ensure that the real victory in his film would be Aisholpan successfully hunting in the bone-chilling Mongolian winter. And as fate would have it, his funds were running out.

“Aisholpan’s major milestones in her chronology dictated my production schedule. I had no choice but to use my own life savings ($80,000) to fund the shoots. I needed to capture the winter scenes, and in addition to knowing how brutal the weather would be, I was suddenly faced with the reality that I had no funds whatsoever to return to do this shooting.”

Bell turned to colleague Doug Scott, who referred him to Morgan Spurlock, who stepped up when the project was most in need.

“I was literally out of money. I had never been in money troubles ever, and I was depressed. I had been carrying this film every day. I was staring at the ceiling, and really worried about finishing it. It was a dark time. I cut together the first 10 minutes of the film and sent a link to Morgan in an email, and he got back to me the same day.”

Spurlock not only brought Bell into his company, Warrior Poets, to cut the film, but also introduced him to financiers and to producer Stacey Reiss as well as Spurlock’s sales agent at CAA to help shop the film. Bell also discovered Martina Radwan, a documentarian who had adopted children in Mongolia and was shooting there, to get scenes of Aisholpan with her school chums and provide some verité footage that captured the quotidian aspects of life in the most remote part of the world.

Says Bell, “Warrior Poets did incredible work on smoothing out footage and doing synched sound. Everything was translated. The nat sound—it took months for us to do. We had a team of people, led by Stacey in Kazakhstan—ten translators whom we fed constant information. Morgan put together a great team, and it was great to have women on what is clearly a women’s film. Sharon Chang and Stacey were fantastic.” 

Spurlock also helped pull off a coup, when Daisy Ridley, already one of the most visible actors on the planet thanks to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, saw a cut of the film before its Sundance premiere and signed on to do the narration. “Daisy Ridley made the film easier for the younger audiences to track along,” says Bell. “She is far more than a name on the poster for us.”

DP Simon Niblett, camera assistant Ben Crossley and producer/director Otto Bell with their 9m, 25kg crane.

With the financing secured, Bell could return to Mongolia to film the final hunt scenes. Shooting was almost impossible during the day where it warm up to minus 25 Fahrenheit, while at night it would go down to minus 40-50 degrees. He had scheduled five days for the shoot; it would end up taking 22. The cold created interminable response times. “You had to wait for warmth so you could get four to five minutes out of a battery or ensure that your hand would stop sticking to the tripod. We would strike every day, from this little village on the Chinese border and go 10-15 kilometers in every direction looking for these blooming foxes, and then when the sun went down, we would race back to the village. We’d sing songs around the fire at night to stay warm.”

Continues Bell, “We could go days without seeing a fox, and we would watch Aisholpan and her father sink into the snow and cross frozen lakes. We would have to run ahead of them in order to capture real moments, and they were amazing to work with, due to their incredible determination.”

The film’s transformation from ethnographic passion project to global empowerment favorite was clear in audience responses, starting with Sundance 2016.

Sony Pictures Classics, which bought the film, has seen results from strong word of mouth. They were not alone in their interest; Fox bought the rights to remake The Eagle Huntress as an animated film.

“Chris Wedge, head of Blue Sky Studios, saw the same photo I did on the BBC site and he started developing an animated version. He heard about our film at Sundance and saw me and said ‘Let’s talk.’ So I am helping provide background for his film. It’s in safe hands to keep Aisholpan’s message of female empowerment in there. I don’t mind whether people see the doc and or the animated version. Whatever guise it comes in, I just care that young girls and boys hear Aisholpan’s message. I don’t care about the carrier.” 

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