What a thrill it was to chat with the team of one of the best documentary films of 2016 in THE EAGLE HUNTRESS.
Director Otto Bell and his subject, the eagle huntress Aisholpan Nurgaiv chatted with me in a press junket hotel room in downtown Toronto during the Toronto International Film Festival. It was a bit of a surreal moment for me walking in as Aisholpan was dressed in her full huntress gear. English isn’t her first language so she didn’t have much to say in this interview. What was striking for me was her demeanor and eyes. At 13 years old, there was wisdom way beyond her years. It was interesting to hear what her next passion is (read below) too. Enjoy. And make sure you check out the film. It’s playing in all of the big cities in North America today.
Matthew Toffolo: Who is taking care of the Eagles right now while you’re in Toronto?
Aisholpan Nurgaiv: My older and younger brothers are taking care of them right now.
MT: What attracted you to making this documentary and going to Mongolia to film Aisholpan and her family?
Otto Bell: I saw a BBC photograph on the day it was posted. I was struck by it immediately. The backdrop and setting was beautiful. It was almost like an oil painting. She (Aisholpan) was training with her father’s bird at the time and the eagle had a 7 foot wingspan – like it was from prehistoric times. And I saw her face, it was striking. Those three factors got me thinking. Is there a movie here?
I found the photographer on facebook that day. Skyped him and then was on a plane to Mongolia in a matter of days.
MT: Wow. What was your headspace like when you saw the photograph?
OB: I was in my cubicle at work.
MT: I mean mentally. spiritually. What propelled you to skype with the photographer and then jump on a plane?
OB: I was in New York making short documentary films for IBM, Philips etc…. I was looking to make a feature film. At least attempting to make one. And the photograph came at the right time. It had to be the right film in order for me to plunge my life savings and go for it.
I got into some pretty tight corners making this film and I was luckily saved by Morgan Spurlock who set me up with more financing. I was able to finance about 2/3rds of the film and then they (Morgan and his team) were able to add some checks and balances to the film and legalize everything. I’m grateful
MT: (to Aisholpan) What is your feeling having Otto and his camera team consuming your lives for so many months?
Aisholpan: We got used to the cameras quickly and it was fine.
MT: Is this your film time in Toronto, Canada?
MT: How do you like the North American culture?
Aisholpan: We were in Utah for Sundance and the culture there with the mountains was fine. Not used to New York or Toronto yet.
MT: Would you ever want to live in North America?
MT: What would you like to do if you lived here?
Aisholpan: First I want to study. I want to be a doctor. I like to be a surgeon.
MT: Did you have a script already completed when you started shooting? Or did you make it ala cinema verte?
OB: I made the film with a compass, not a map. Things kept coming up and I was able to adjust. What made me able to finish was the story map of her going through the stages of being a true Huntress. So that was good.
I first thought it was going to be a “girl power” film, but the strongest theme that came out of it is a story of a father/daughter relationship.
MT: There is still a lot of social commentary happening with the female empowerment.
OB: Yes, I didn’t want to hit people over the head with that. It comes out and that’s great.
MT: You were able to grab Daisy Ridley to do the voice over. How did that come to be?
OB: Initially, there wasn’t a voice over when we first showed it at Sundance. We sold the film to Sony Pictures Classic. Through Morgan Spurlock’s machine at CAA, they had Daisy on the books and they showed it to her.
She called me up saying that she loved the film and she really got it. That was nice.
Then Sony suggested that I add some voice over in it. What they wanted to provide was a little bit of a hand-hold for the viewers. To make it easier for kids to watch. I was hesitant at first, but when they suggested Daisy I thought it would work. She has a fantastic voice and it really needed to be from a female perspective. So I was sold and it makes the film better.
MT: Tell us your experience working with your cinematographer Simon Niblett? What an amazing job he did.
OB: Simon and I made about 8 short films together around the world. I was very used to him and vice versa. He’s a natural world documentarian. And he’s an inventor. He brought in a lot of equipment, which was my biggest expense. And that’s how we got all the terrific landscape shots in the film.
MT: When I watched the film and the credits came up, I was shocked by how small the list was. A DP. An assistant. An editor. That’s it.
OB: Yes. It was very small. And we made it look like there was a whole lot more.
MT: (to Aisholpan) What is your all-time favourite movie?
Aisholpan: Ice Age. Animation films are my favourite.
MT: What film have you watched the most times in your life?
OB: The Quiet Man. I love that film.
PHOTO: Aisholpan Nurgaiv – THE EAGLE HUNTRESS:
Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to http://www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.