Over the weekend I went to see two films at the Cork Film Festival. First I watched “The Eagle Huntress” at the Everyman on MacCurtain Street. It was a story about Aisholpan, a young Kazakh girl in Western Mongolia who wanted to become the first female eagle hunter in over 12 generations. I think that part of the reason that I enjoyed the film so much was due to experiences in my own personal life. I commented afterwards that the landscapes in it reminded me so much of Afghanistan, which had me leaving the theater in a fit of nostalgia. Indeed, it wasn’t until the end of the film when one of the hunters mentions that the people are ethnic Kazakhs rather than Mongolians, and it instantly clicked, how I had recognized some of the words used over subtitles, which bore so much resemblance to the Dari of Northern and Central Afghanistan. The people in the film looked and interacted much like the Hazara and Tajiks I had used to work with in Afghanistan, who had been a hated and oppressed minority under Taliban rule, suffering several waves of ethnic cleansing in the 1990s. They had been quite fond of the American presence in the country. It was often said to us over tea, and biscuits and cucumber and raisins and rice, spread out across massive Persian rugs, that the Hazara were direct descendants of the Mongolian hordes which had stayed on and never left Afghanistan.
A big part of why I so readily identified with the film was probably due to my own sense of frustration with cultural attitudes the West often has with regards to progressive values. While on the one hand the promotion of individual liberties and progressive values is understood to be universally and unquestionably virtuous, it often belies its own aversion to colonialism and imperialism. Take for example feminism and gay rights. Though these are causes widely taken up in affluent democracies, Western progressives stress the importance of multi-culturalism of non-Western cultures. An inevitable dilemma occurs when non-Western cultures hold on to materialist values which may seem to be antithetical towards feminism and gay rights How could one watch the film and not recognize the utilitarian value of large families in the setting of a society wholly dependent on subsistence farming and hunting? How can one criticize this division of labor without looking like a cultural bully, ignorant and unemphatic to the harsher realities of others? I have witnessed this myself first hand in Afghanistan. If we in the West can all look back at the Bush era neo-conservative, democratic nation building paradigm as ethnocentric and culturally naive, than I think it is impossible not to place the same cultural standard upon progressive activists. “The Eagle Huntress” did what the US couldn’t in central Asia: it entered into a foreign world, and with precision observed a social change magnificently and artfully without getting bogged down.
I cynically feel at times like much of the Western world is attempting to recreate the colonial scramble for global influence of the 19th century, under the banner of self-proclaimed progressive values. A cursory look at the rise of conservativism in Russia contrasted with the widely liberal United Kingdom alongside military adventurism by both nations in central Asia hearkens back to the 19th century’s “Great Game”. But “The Eagle Huntress” remarkably didn’t have the tone of Western moral denunciation for something deemed sexist. Instead of coming across as this sort of culturally imperialist hatchet job that liberals in developed nations like to watch in order to hoist themselves above the plebeian masses, it very objectively, and very humorously showed a cultural collision, in a microcosm of the human tale, in plainly human terms. Any local indignation and conservative voices opposing Aisholpan’s decision to follow her dreamss were humorously depicted as something akin to little boys huddled in tree houses with signs above them reading ‘no girls allowed’. And they were proven wrong. Aisholpan’s victory at the Eagle Hunting competition (against dozens of far more experienced men) is roundly summed up as ‘not a true test of an Eagle hunter’. Until she can go out into the cold of the frozen steppes and actually catch a fox, she is not a true eagle hunter, they assert. She then goes out into the frozen steppes and catches a fox with her father, as he did with his father. And they show a remarkably human reaction to Aisholpan’s dream. Though initially finding it odd for a young girl to want to do, they simply shrug, and agree that if it’s what she wants to do, then why not give her their blessing?
In further avoiding the Ghost of Colonial Empires Past (sorry, it’s near Christmas time, I’ve Charles Dickens on the mind) the film’s narrator had a distinctly British accent, but spoke seldom. This helped to convey a very objective portrayal of Aisholpan as she attempted to do something so incredible. There was no grand statement made by her; she was simply a 13 year old girl who enjoyed what all the other 13 year old girls in her village did. From Monday to Friday she lived in a dormitory with her classmates at school; they laughed, and told stories, and studied, and played ball. They painted their nails, and braided their hair. And they asked her, amazed, and intrigued, how it felt to train eagles to hunt. And she told them, shrugging, it was fun. They laughed, in shock while she was in training, and then clapped, inspired when she won in competition. The film was a snapshot of a world most of us are completely unfamiliar with. And it was told on Aisholpan’s terms, and on her culture’s terms, in a universal language, which everyone in the theater could laugh along with. That was nice.
Grantham, Andrew. “Railways of Afghanistan: Afghan Railroads, Past, Present and Future.” http://www.andrewgrantham.co.uk/afghanistan/railways/the-great-game/
The Eagle Huntress. Directed by Otto Bell, performances by Aisholpan Nurgaiv, Nurgaiv Rys, Almagul Kuksyegyen, Dalaikhan. 2016.