Two Documentaries

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Eagle Huntress takes place somewhere in the area near borders of China, Mongolia, Siberia, and Kazakhstan in the Altai mountains. It’s a Kazakh community, which I gathered was once nomadic, and still is semi-nomadic. Aisholpan, the 15 year old (approximately) main character, and her brother and sister attend school during the week (she looks after them, as she is the oldest), and go home on weekends. The school looks much like an American school, there’s TV and other western technology that the community seems to have pretty well assimilated. But the community also focuses on its own traditions, one of which is hunting with eagles.

Falconry used to be very popular in medieval and Renaissance Europe, but there’s a difference when you hunt with a bird that weighs fifteen pounds (and looks like it might weigh considerably more). Get ready for a bird that size landing on your arm.

Traditionally, only men have hunted with eagles, but Aisholpan wants to do it, and her father and grandfather don’t see any reason she shouldn’t. Her father takes her into the mountains to find an eagle’s nest. She climbs down the mountain wall to it, puts the female nestling into a sack which her father draws up, and climbs back up herself. Then her father shows her how to train the bird. She has to give it food until it can learn how to hunt.

The bird has to learn to come when it’s called and to go after prey. Aisholpan has talent in controlling the bird, and the bird seems to have talent too.

But when some of the older men find out that Aisholpan plans to compete in the annual eagle competition, they disapprove. To their credit, they don’t try to prevent her, and she and her bird win the contest.

The next step is going into the mountains again for the bird to learn to really hunt. It hunts fox, a pretty big animal, and it takes several tries for the bird to actually make the kill, but it eventually does. We don’t know where Aisholpan goes from there.

Another slightly less recent movie is set in the Himalayan mountains, quite a bit further south. The movie begins with a mother installing her nine year old son in a Buddhist monastery as a monk, telling him it’s better. Just how and why is unclear. The implication is that she can’t afford to take care of him, but she’s able to afford a television. Unfortunately, the man who bought it for her dropped it off his horse as he was bringing it, so now it’s broken. Later in the movie she’s able to send him to the town three days away to buy another.

The boy isn’t badly treated at the monastery, but wants to come home. Nine years old is a bit early for a religious vocation. Instead, he gets to go with his uncle to town to get the TV and visit his sister, who works in an office there–except that when they get there it doesn’t seem to be an office. We see a number of young women up on a stage, and though nothing definite is said, the implication seems to be that she’s a prostitute.

The boy returns to his village, and the last scene we see is his mother and a crowd of other people watching what sounds like a wrestling match. We’re left to wonder what they make of it.

Of the two movies, Eagle Huntress seems to show a community in control of the western technology it uses. We don’t know if that community is more or less isolated than the one in the Himalayas, and it may be that the movie set in the Himalayas elected to show us different things than the other. If we can judge from what is shown, though, young people from that community aren’t especially well educated, and if the boy’s sister is indeed a prostitute, that doesn’t seem like a good situation. She tells her brother that she boards at the institution where she works, which makes it seem as if she’s little better than a slave. We don’t get enough data to be sure, though. Nor do we know if her situation comes about because of collision between eastern and western cultures. That seems to be the implication, but we can’t be sure.

The first movie seems to show a balanced culture in which western technology is used, but not overused–as far as we can see. What’s the real story there? It would be nice to know.

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