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Interview with director Otto Bell – everything you need to know about The Eagle Huntress

Date posted: 09.12.2016

Working in partnership with Vue Entertainment, we're bringing the capital's film fans World Cinema at Vue: a new, year-long initiative offering the very best that world cinema has to offer. The season kicks off with epic Mongolia-set documentary The Eagle Huntress.

Director Otto Bell discovered our heroine Aisholpan after coming across a BBC photo diary by young Israeli photographer, Asher Svidensky, who had stumbled across her in the mountains of northwest Mongolia. Bell saw his spellbinding work, and immediately knew there was a film behind the beautiful images…

The way that you found Aisholpan is lovely and the photos are gorgeous. What was it that particularly that made you feel like you wanted to make the film and tell her story?

Yes, the photos are beautiful and I definitely had an emotional response to them, but they also had all the ingredients of a great film. This beautiful location of the mountains as the backdrop, and then this enormous bird - they’re the largest species of Golden eagle in the world with a 6-or-7-foot wingspan – and then obviously Aisholpan in the foreground. She’s got this lovely angelic face, but she’s also very strong, so I had my characters there as well. With all those things put together, I realised I had the makings of an amazing film within those photographs.

Did Aisholpan or her family take a lot of convincing to be in the film?

They’re a very hospitable people in that part of North West Mongolia. It’s the most remote part of the least populated country in the world. They live with their immediate family so when they do get guests, it’s a big deal and they’re very welcoming. Hospitality is a big priority for them so they were very welcoming to me and my crew. But they were also very up for being in the film. I should make it clear, it’s not like these guys haven’t been contacted before. They get tourists there during the summer months, and intrepid travelers will come by their door and they’ll spend a night or two, and those people are often amateur photographers so they are used to people taking lots of photos. So this didn’t feel at all like a big leap to them or me, to jump in and make a film.

What was the most challenging thing about shooting the documentary?

The weather was pretty harsh. In that final act, the conditions when we were shooting were about -50 °C which made it very difficult to film because all the equipment gives up the ghost - you don’t get any battery life, and the drone won’t fly. So what was supposed to take us five days ended up taking us 22 days.

Well it’s credit to you and your team that it looks so slick, because you wouldn’t know you were struggling behind the scenes.

Yeah my editor did a great job. He spent about nine months smoothing it out, so that it does feel very polished. But I can assure you, it was a lot of glimpses and moments and fleeting scenes that went into making the finished product.

Do you have a favourite scene, or one that was particularly fun to shoot?

Well that’s a bit like picking your favourite kid! But I do really like a scene about a third of the way though the film when they’re packing up their summer home - their yurt - and they’re putting their whole life at the back of the lorry and driving across the Steppe. And it’s just a nice sort of breather, it gives them a chance just to take in the landscape.

My fiancé actually found the music for the scene and I really love it. She’s a little-known artists called Julianna Barwick and it’s just a beautiful scene. It’s my little love letter to being a nomad.

Yes the music was great as well and it was so helpful in tying the different scenes together as was almost part of the narrative.

Yes, I think it makes it easier for the kids to keep up with what’s going on.

People are calling this a feminist film. What do you make of this?

Certainly when I was getting started I wanted to make sort of a female empowerment film and I think it is. I think it does have a feminist message in there but hopefully it doesn’t hit you over the head. I think really what it ended up becoming was just a story about a dad and his daughter. The fact that she didn’t question whether or not she should be an eagle huntress is a testament to how she was raised.

What will people love about this film?

Young girls – and boys – are inspired by Aisholpan. They realise that like her, if you work hard, and they’re determined and they don’t listen to nay-sayers, they can achieve whatever it is that they want to accomplish.

Did you feel you had to compromise because of any financial restrictions?

I was restricted financially because I was making a film with my life savings – which wasn’t very much money! But I tried very hard not to cut corners on the production value. So I actually took out a loan from the bank to make sure to keep the standard of filmmaking up where I wanted it to be. Because honestly we felt quite a sense of responsibility to make the film high style because of Aisholpan and her family.

How did you stay creative when inspiration was waning slightly or when things got difficult?

Honestly Aisolpan was my inspiration. You see this young woman ploughing through the snow, carrying this heavy bird to fulfil her dream. It doesn’t leave you much room to complain. You can’t really say, “Oh I’m going to go back to the village it’s a bit cold today”. You take inspiration from her and think well if she’s going to finish this, I’m going to finish this.

Finally, the film is playing at selected Vue Cinemas across London as part of year-long season of world cinema. What would you say to people who might not think that this type of film is for them?

I’d say 100% go and see it because even though it’s a bit of an exotic tradition, and it’s a story about far away people, if they like Katniss Everdeen and think that Khaleesi is a great mother of dragons and if they like Daisy (Ridley) in Star Wars as Rey, then this is the real thing.