Monday, January 22, 2018
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DGA Award Nominee Otto Bell Reflects on "The Eagle Huntress"
Otto Bell
Former OgilvyEntertainment creative director makes mark with his first feature documentary
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Though he feels blessed with “terrific beginner’s luck” in finding a subject as real and inspiring as 13-year-old Aisholopan for his first feature, The Eagle Huntress (Sony Pictures Classics), director Otto Bell himself is a remarkable story as he put his life savings and capital from maxed-out credit cards into the project which has since gone on to earn critical acclaim as well as a coveted DGA Award nomination for Outstanding Achievement in Documentary.

The spark for the film came in the form of a photo essay from still lenser Asher Svidensky that appeared on the BBC website and included shots of Aisholopan, a nomadic Kazakh girl living in Mongolia and aspiring to be an eagle hunter. This storied tradition of falconry in that part of the world is largely the domain of men who train golden eagles to respond to their call and hunt foxes and hares in the frozen tundra. Bell saw the pictures of Aisholopan--whose father is an eagle hunter and whose grandfather was as well--and became immediately enamored and obsessed with her quest to buck convention and realize her ambition.

Bell connected with Svidensky via Facebook and Skype, leading him to Aisholopan. Bell, who currently heads Courageous, a branded content unit which CNN launched about a year and a half ago, went into The Eagle Huntress with extensive short branded documentary experience during his tenure as creative director at OgilvyEntertainment in NY. He directed and produced assorted shorts at OgilvyEntertainment, working in distant locales ranging from Uganda to Peru, Russia and Japan. These shorts were intimate portraits of everyday people but Bell longed to tell a story on a larger scale. He felt that opportunity presented itself upon seeing the photos of and then eventually meeting Aisholopan.

Bell, Svidensky and cameraman Chris Raymond made the long sojourn to Aisholopan’s home in a remote area of Bayan-Olgii. Bell was immediately thrust into production because that next morning Aisholopan and her father, Nurgaiv, were going to steal a balapan (young eagle) from its nest. It was a pivotal scene that had to be filmed even though Bell lacked the ideal equipment to pull off such a shoot. All they had was Raymond’s Canon C300 Mark 1, Svidensky’s DSLR and a tiny GoPro camera. Bell also lacked a soundman, having to resort to a pocket Zoom digital recorder he had brought along to use for interviews. 

But Bell and his colleagues had no choice but to make do in that the procurement of an eagle was pivotal to the story. They cobbled together the necessary coverage, which entailed surviving some precarious footing on mountain ledges.

To continue the documentary, Bell then brought in DP Simon Niblett who shot many of his short docs at OgilvyEntertainment. Niblett in turn brought in more sophisticated equipment, including a full-sized  RED 4K EPIC camera, a self-made drone and a crane to do full justice to Aisholopan’s story, capturing the majesty of the eagle in training, its bonding with Aisholopan, as well as the epic qualities of the Mongolian landscape.

Most importantly, Bell built a relationship with Aisholopan and her family, which evolved into a friendship. The filmmaker also put his finger on the pulse of the community at large, which entailed going door to door and meeting with Kazakh eagle hunter elders in the village of Sagsai. He got these senior male hunters to talk about the prospect of a female eagle hunter, at times eliciting patronizing remarks heard in the film that women are “too fragile” and “not brave enough” to hunt with a Golden Eagle.

While Aisholopan is not the first modern Kazakh eagle huntress--that distinction belongs to Makpal Abdrazakova, a lawyer from Kazakhstan--she is the first Mongolian female to compete at the Golden Eagle Festival in Olgii and win, defeating 70 veteran eagle hunters. She set a record with the fastest recorded time--five seconds--for an eagle to swoop down from a mountaintop and land on its mater’s arm. Beyond the exhibition, Aisholopan later is shown tackling a true test in the real world--going out in the wild to hunt with her eagle.

Lesson learned
By the time he wanted to film that true test--Aisholopan and her father traveling into the wild for her first hunting trip as an eagle huntress--Bell had run out of money. The director put together a 10-minute teaser trailer and sent it to Oscar-nominated documentarian Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) who was impressed with Aisholopan’s story. Spurlock helped Bell find financing, gave him access to equipment, and brought in veteran producer Stacey Reiss to assist in the film’s two remaining shoots and postproduction.

Bell said this underscored a prime lesson learned. “I made the mistake of trying to make the film alone. I used my own money which wasn’t a lot. I produced it myself and was able to drag the film about two-thirds of the way through with a small crew of two or three people. I had a certain romanticism about making a film this way, a sense of heroism. It’s nonsense. You ultimately need producers, executive producers, a strong post team. You need a shield wall of talented people in place to stand a chance of finishing a film in style. It meant finding equity partners. Enthusiasm and good will only take you so far.”

The last third of the film was also challenging from a climate standpoint, with filming taking place in 50 degrees below zero weather. “This posed another set of challenges,” related Bell. “It’s like being underwater. Everything takes three to four times as long. Equipment fails constantly. You can only shoot for a few hours a day.”

But key to overcoming any challenges--from monetary to temperature--were the spirit, resolve, humanity and humility of Aisholopan who also plans to become a medical doctor. “To have her as your main character is a blessing for any filmmaker,” affirmed Bell who was also inspired by the Mongolian culture and its principles. On the latter score, he noted, that “from the get-go, these eagles are treated with great reverence and ultimately returned to the wild after seven years of service. The bird is a true member of the family for a period of time and then released back to the wild with love and appreciation.”

In addition to Bell’s DGA Award nomination, The Eagle Huntress has garnered assorted honors, including a BAFTA Film Award nomination this year for Best Documentary, three Critics’ Choice Documentary Award nominations with one being for Best First Documentary Feature for Bell, and recognition as one of the Top Five Documentaries of 2016 from the U.S. National Board of Review.

As for what’s next for Bell, he is enthused over his CNN gig which has him finding “young cinematographers and exciting directors” and helping them to build their reels with worthwhile work. At the same time, Bell said he “definitely wants to keep on directing” as he explores what his next project might be. “I read everything, look at everything, searching for that next story.”

Credits for ScreenWork: 

Otto Bell, director; Stacey Reiss, Sharon Clang, producers; Morgan Spurlock, Jeremy Chilnick,  executive producers; Simon Niblett, DP; Pierre Takal, editor;