Can Northumberland director win an Oscar?

Otto Bell with Aisholpan Nurgaiv. Photograph by Sony Pictures Classics
Otto Bell with Aisholpan Nurgaiv. Photograph by Sony Pictures Classics

A Northumberland filmmaker is in the running to clinch a prestigious Oscar, after his debut feature-length documentary has been shortlisted to win the famous prize.

Otto Bell, who was born and bred in the Alnwick area, directed and produced the breathtaking feature, The Eagle Huntress.

The fascinating film follows 13-year-old Aisholpan, as she trains to become the first girl in 12 generations of her Kazakh family to become an eagle hunter.

The documentary has grossed $1.7million at the US box office and is also being shown in UK cinemas, including Alnwick Playhouse.

And things could get even better. The film is one of 15 titles to advance to the shortlist of the Academy’s feature documentary competition for February’s Oscars, having been whittled down from 145.

The Academy’s documentary branch will now choose five nominees, to be announced next month. Otto, 35, works for CNN in New York. He said: “There is a long way to go, but it feels great to be an Oscar contender.”

Aisholpan Nurgaiv is The Eagle Huntress. Photograph by Sony Pictures Classics

Aisholpan Nurgaiv is The Eagle Huntress. Photograph by Sony Pictures Classics

The Eagle Huntress began when director Otto Bell first laid eyes on one of the most remarkable images he had ever seen: A radiant young girl on a mountain top, joyfully casting a majestic eagle into the air.

The pictures of the girl, Aisholpan, taken by Israeli photographer Asher Svidensky, enchanted Bell, but the BBC News headline, A 13-Year-Old Eagle Huntress in Mongolia, intrigued him even more.

He remembers: “I knew that somewhere in the world this girl was out there walking around. There was a film that needed to be made about her and I wanted to be the one to make it.”

Bell was undeterred by the fact that he had never made a single feature documentary before. Up until then, he had travelled the globe making branded content short documentaries.

The Eagle Huntress is an Oscar contender. Photography by Sony Pictures Classics

The Eagle Huntress is an Oscar contender. Photography by Sony Pictures Classics

But he hungered to do something on a larger scale than his shorts. He tracked down Svidensky on Facebook and they discussed the idea of a film.

As they began talking, the photos went viral. “I saw this as proof,” says Bell, a former pupil of Alnwick’s Duchess’s Community High School. “If so many others felt as strongly about the photos as I did, I had to be on to something.”

Bell knew he had to move quickly, so he took a leap of faith and took off for Mongolia with Svidensky and cameraman Chris Raymond. And what a gamble it turned out to be, although it wasn’t an easy ride.

The day the trio finally tracked down the nomadic family, Bell was nervous they might be wary of being filmed.

Aisholpan Nurgaiv at school. Image by Sony Pictures Classics

Aisholpan Nurgaiv at school. Image by Sony Pictures Classics

Instead, her father Nurgaiv made an extraordinary offer. “He said, ‘This afternoon we are going down the mountain to steal an eagle for Aisholpan. Do you want to film that?’”

Capturing Aisholpan’s dizzying climb down a sheer cliff to an eagle’s nest, with only a rope tied round her waist, posed problems for them all.

The cameraman was afraid of heights so could only film from solid ground below and the photographer Svidensky wasn’t best-placed to step in as he’d never shot moving images.

Bell had to get creative – strapping a GoPro inside Aisholpan’s cardigan and climbing with Svidensky to a ledge opposite the nest, to capture another angle.

Bell proceeded cautiously as he built his relationship with Aisholpan and her family. “It was hard, as she’s a 13-year-old girl who’s chronically shy and I didn’t speak the language,” says Bell.

“I concentrated on my relationship with her mum and dad first, to get them comfortable. They are very reserved and stoic people, so I had to respect that as I approached them. It took a while, but over time she and I really built a friendship.”

Filmmaker Martina Radwan stayed with Aisholpan and her family for two weeks and captured many of the day-in-the-life moments in the film like scenes of Aisholpan at school, the family eating dinner, and ice-skating with her friends. “We wanted to give the audience a window into the everyday life of Aisholpan,” says Bell.

Aisholpan became the first Mongolian female to compete at the Golden Eagle Festival in Ölgii and win, defeating 70 veteran eagle hunters. She also became a record-setter, as her eagle flew to her arm in five seconds, the fastest recorded time to date.

But, the victory was dismissed by the eagle-hunter elders, saying that for Aisholpan to really prove herself, she’d have to successfully hunt a fox with her eagle. Bell knew he had to come back and film the hunt, but he had run out of cash. So he sent a teaser trailer to famed director/producer Morgan Spurlock, best known for Super Size Me.

Spurlock was blown away and helped Bell find financing, gave him access to equipment and brought in veteran producer Stacey Reiss to guide the film through its remaining shoots and post-production.

The hunt took 22 days to film and the crew had to endure temperatures of -40. To make matters worse, Bell had broken his arm and had to cope with the bitter cold while wearing a cast.

He said: “We lit fires under the engine block of our van to get it to turn over. Our hands stuck to the tripods and everything metal.”

The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and has since been screened throughout America, sold into 30 territories worldwide and opened in the UK last week.

And Otto is delighted that the film will be screened at Alnwick Playhouse on Saturday, January 14, at 7.30pm. He said: “I made sure it came home. It is an honour for me to have it at the Playhouse, where I have watched many things in the past.”

The Eagle Huntress is the most profitable documentary on the 15-strong Oscar shortlist and Otto was recently named by Variety magazine as one of 10 directors to watch in 2017.

The rights of the film have been sold to 20th Century Fox and is set to be made into an animated feature, to be directed by Chris Wedge, best known for films such as Ice Age.

As a result of her fame, Aisholpan has been given a scholarship to one of Mongolia’s best schools, while an educational trust set up for her with proceeds from the documentary means she can pursue her other dream, to become a doctor.

Unlike her eagle, she is determined to keep her feet on the ground. Otto said: “She is still in the same place. She has no interest in moving to Hollywood.”

Ultimately, the film is not about Aisholpan breaking a barrier, picking up a prize at a festival, or proving a point to some crotchety old men. She is not the only eagle huntress in Central Asia, and she is not the only girl in Central Asia or the world who has accomplished something amazing.

It’s simply that after 12 generations of eagle hunters in her family passing on an ancient tradition from father to son, Aisholpan was the first girl to say “I want to do this!” It never occurred to her that she couldn’t be an eagle hunter, because her father and mother did not bring her up to think that way. In her sunny countenance, strength and courage, Aisholpan is a glowing metaphor for a world that refuses to say no to the soaring dreams of little girls.

“This entire journey is about her personal victory,” says Bell. “That’s why I end the film so quietly, with Aisholpan and her dad riding off into the sunset and heading home.”