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AKIPRESS.COM - Producer Stacey Reiss talked to 13-year-old Aisholpan Nurgaiv about how she overturned 2,000 years of male tradition for Harpers Bazaar.
"As the producer of The Eagle Huntress, I spent many months getting to know Aisholpan in the edit room before I met her in person in Mongolia. I began working on the film after director Otto Bell had already started filming, so I watched hours and hours of footage of her performing innumerable daring acts – climbing big mountains, catching an eagle, and competing against men twice her size in the annual Golden Eagle Festival. She came from a long line of eagle hunters; her father and grandfather both practiced this ancient ritual of using golden eagles to hunt for food, but in 12 generations there had never been a young woman to carry on this tradition.
When I finally traveled to Aisholpan's remote home to meet her, what struck me most was how closely we had captured Aisholpan's authentic self in the film. She wasn't trying to be brave or courageous, or even smash the glass ceiling of male-dominated eagle hunting. She was simply a 13-year old girl who liked to spend time outdoors with her father, who felt this was in her blood and wanted to try it out. Once Aisholpan's father saw the natural bond his daughter had with his eagle, he knew he wanted to train her. Aisholpan didn't hear the words "no" or "you can't do it". Her inner strength came from following her convictions, listening to her heart and knowing her family was there to support her. They provided the foundation she needed to take an enormous leap. Aisholpan is daring because she was never taught anything different," Reiss tells.
Stacey Reiss: What do you think that word daring means?
Aisholpan Nurgaiv: I try to take risks. There is a Kazakh saying that if you keep trying, then finally you will get there. My parents have been saying that to me from when I was a child.
SR: When was the first time you wanted to learn how to become an eagle hunter?
AN: When I was 10 years old. I knew I wanted to become an eagle hunter after seeing my father hunting and looking after his eagle.
SR: Were you scared at all?
AN: No, I wasn't afraid.
SR: There's a scene in the film where your friends are nervous about what it would be like to train an eagle. Where did you get your strength from?
AN: For me, the eagle is like a member of my family. I have never been scared of the eagle because I grew up with them. Many of my family are eagle hunters. My father and all of his brothers and their sons are all eagle hunters.
SR: When you first said you wanted to be an eagle huntress what did you parents say?
AN: They said I could do it, from the very beginning.
SR: Why do you think they were so supportive, when other men in the community were against you training your own eagle?
AN: Maybe because I love the eagle.
SR: When you arrived at the festival with your father as the first-ever female eagle hunter, there were hundreds of men staring at you. How did that make you feel?
AN: I was nervous, but I felt beautiful. It's difficult for me to describe my feelings.
SR: Did you think about that you were the first woman to do this at that festival? Where did you get that courage?
AN: I knew that I was the only girl and the youngest. But I just wanted to try it. I just wanted to do what my father was doing.
SR: There is a scene where some of the other eagle hunters are not so happy that you were there. Did you realize that? Did it make you want to win more?
AN: Yes. (smiles)
SR: You make it look easy. Like when you scale a mountain to the baby eagle. And I know from when I went to Mongolia and held an eagle, they are so heavy. I can't imagine having to ride at the same time.
AN: It was easy for me because I would walk on the mountains for fun, so there was nothing to worry about. The eagle was a little bit heavy but it's not that hard for me.
SR: You climb mountains literally and figuratively, and when I look at you there isn't a mountain you don't want to climb. Is anything hard for you?
AN: There is nothing. (smiles)
SR: What are your plans for the future?
AN: I want to graduate high school and go to university and become a doctor. In the future I want to study in the United States. I want to be a surgeon and a doctor because my mother often got sick and I knew I could help her if I was a doctor.
SR: Who has inspired you to achieve what you have?
AN: My father first, and then my mother.
SR: We talked about some of the people at the first eagle festival who weren't supportive, but now you are competing in the festival for the third time, are they more supportive? Have things changed since you started?
AN: Now everyone knows I am a full-grown eagle hunter and they are afraid of me.
SR: Do you think you have proven yourself?
The Eagle Huntress opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on November 2.