Entertainment & Arts

Why Star Wars' Daisy Ridley joined forces with a girl from Mongolia

Aisholpan in The Eagle Huntress Image copyright Asher Svidensky
Image caption The film follows 13-year-old Aisholpan as she breaks centuries of tradition

After becoming a global star for playing Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, actress Daisy Ridley has, at the age of 24, produced her first film - after she was told its subject, a female eagle hunter in Mongolia, would "remind her of Rey".

That film, The Eagle Huntress, directed by British journalist Otto Bell, has now made more than $1.5m (£1.2m) at the US box office in six weeks and is among the 15 documentaries in the running for this year's Oscars.

The real-life story, narrated by Ridley, follows the then 13-year-old Aisholpan as she trains with her father to become the first female eagle hunter in 12 generations of her family, who are Kazakhs living in Mongolia.

They are, the film says, breaking the centuries-old tradition that says the skill is handed down from father to son.

"When I was first sent the film, I ended up curled into a ball, crying and then calling my mum," Ridley recalls. " I was just completely blown away. And so I just had to call Otto and say, 'how can I help you?'"

Image copyright AP
Image caption Daisy Ridley said that Aisholpan's relationship with her father reminded her of her own family

Bell remembers that both he and the film's other executive producer, Morgan Spurlock, called the resilient and independent Aisholpan "a real life Rey" - but Ridley says that was not why she got on board.

"It just reminded me of me and my own relationship with my dad, and how unflinching he was in his support of me wanting to become an actress," she explains.

"That to me is the real heart of the film. I think people will realise the hidden gem of the film is this family and their relationships with each other.

"However, this little girl, Aisholpan, is genuinely inspirational. People are very kind about me as a role model, but all I do is play characters.

"This little girl is breaking down hundreds of years of gender disparity and she doesn't think she is doing anything huge. I think this film is going to affect many girls."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Director Otto Bell tracked Aisholpan down after seeing photographs of her online

Otto Bell set off for Mongolia on a whim two years ago after photographs of Aisholpan and an eagle surfaced on the BBC website under the headline A 13-year-old Eagle Huntress in Mongolia.

"I tracked down the family eventually - it's hard because they are nomadic - and Aisholpan's father Nurgaiv said, 'Well, today we are going to capture an eagle for Aisholpan, are you interested in filming that?'

"So the first day's filming was watching Aisholpan climb down a rocky crevice on a single length of rope, down to an eagle's nest. It was a health and safety nightmare."

The film also documents Aisholpan becoming the first female to ever complete in the region's annual eagle hunting festival, before taking her eagle for its first kill onto the icy steppes in conditions of -25C.

Bell says Aisholpan was "treated with some pretty ugly derision from the elders to start with".

He adds: "Her father tried to insulate her from the worst of it. But now they can see she is actually the real deal, that she really is a huntress, there's a lot more acceptance."

Image copyright Sony Pictures/AP
Image caption Aisholpan's story could also become a major animated movie

Daisy Ridley comments: "She takes it all in her stride. I just have huge respect for the way she goes about everything. She barely has a presence on social media, she does it because she wants to, not because she wants to be recognised for it.

"In a world where so much is about what you look like, this film is about her dreams and her passion. It's about her soul, and that's wonderful in a world full of superficial images."

The rights to The Eagle Huntress have been sold to Hollywood to make the story into an animated film, and as profit participants in the documentary, Aisholpan's family now has enough money for her to achieve her other ambition - to become a surgeon.

Otto Bell says he would "like to see the film in schools 20 years from now, telling girls and boys of what they can achieve if they put their minds to it".

Image copyright Asher Svidensky
Image caption The Eagle Huntress is in cinemas in the UK from Friday

Ridley agrees there is a valuable message there for female pupils. "When I was growing up, I didn't feel stereotyped, I went to a school heavily weighted towards girls and my parents were wonderful," she says.

"Yet there is sometimes a hesitation with girls reaching out for what we want. But then you have Aisholpan, not even questioning whether she can do it or not. Could I have done all this at 13? Absolutely not."

"She really is dauntless," Bell confirms. "There's a real duality to her character, because in some ways she's a teenager who loves to giggle with her friends and paint her nails.

"But as soon as she's with her eagle, she becomes this steely character determined to win. When you see her ploughing through the snow, with this heavy burden of a bird, she inspired us all, despite the horrendous conditions, to actually finish the film."

The Eagle Huntress is released in the UK on 16 December.

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