This interview was conducted by Joelle Monique and transcribed by John Bauer.
BGN: Yeah so we’re all nerdy ladies. We have a lot of fearless women amongst us – I’m not one of them. I have a lot of fears! In watching this film I… I don’t even know where to start. So many questions. I guess let’s just start… You found – can you say her name for me?
BGN: You found her through photos that were released in 2014, right?
Otto: That’s right. Yeah.
BGN: Okay. And then you just hopped a plane and you were like “we got to find her! We’re just going to get her now!”
Otto: Pretty much!
Otto: I found the photographer through Facebook.
Otto: I was lucky enough to see the pictures the day they came out. I jumped on a plane with Asher, we’d Skype’d, got on well, and then we headed out… Yeah pretty quickly after the photos were published. I did take a cameraman, Chris Raymond, we’d been working together in Cairo, and I was thinking maybe we’d be able to shoot a little bit of a sizzle so I could show eventual financiers back home to get the rights to this story as well.
Otto: And then pretty much the day that we arrived her Dad was like, “oh, well we’re going to go and steal an eagle from a nest. Is that the kind of thing you want to film?” So, we scrambled. But we had to do it in one take because the mother was circling above.
BGN: Right! You could hear the whole audience take a breath and they were like, “It’s the mother!” and they were like “Nooooo! Get out of there!” It was kind of the only moment of fear in the movie.
BGN: For even her! She’s like, “Dad, don’t drop me!” to her father! It’s the only moment with fear and it’s just so palpable. What was it like shooting? You seem them as they’re climbing down, the rocks are sliding, it’s just like surfing on rocks. She’s like, “Wooo! Whatever!” and I’m like, “You’re going to fall!”
Otto: I wasn’t actually that worried about her. I think she probably could have done it without the rope because that’s kind of like their playground. Even her little brother and sister, you see them scaling little mountains. That’s kind of where they’re at home. Yeah it’s amazing. She’s fearless.
BGN: So what was it like for you? It looked like you had a GoPro attached to her?
Otto: Yeah! So… like I said it was one take. So I had Chris at the bottom of the mountain doing wide because he was afraid of heights.
BGN: I just picture you picking a cameraman to shoot her scene and he’s like, “We have to climb a mountain? What? No!”
Otto: Yeah, he wasn’t into it.
BGN: That’s so funny!
Otto: And then Asher, who was with me – I made the film with no more than 3 or 4 people.
Otto: That was the largest the crew ever got. And Asher had never shot video before. Only stills. So I was like, “You know how to keep something in focus, right?” And he goes, “Yeah, I know how to! It’s fine! I told you what I’d do, just keep it steady.” So he and I scrambled down this cliff and nearly killed ourselves.
BGN: Oh my god!
Otto: Like next door to the nest. So that’s the side shot. And then I had a GoPro on my right side, which I put underneath her cardigan. You can actually see it… So that’s a bit annoying, but you have to look quite hard. 90% of that GoPro stuff was unusable.
BGN: Okay. I thought the stuff you did use though was so effective.
Otto: Yeah! Well, it puts you right then and there in the nest! You know?
BGN: I have to tell you; I didn’t go in knowing anything. I don’t like to watch movies with any kind of pretext for them. So I did all my research afterwards. And I’m watching it and I’m like, “Is this a doc or is this a narrative?” And then I discovered Variety has compared it to Nanook of the North and they were talking about how they felt it had to be partially reconstructed.
Otto: Yeah, yeah! I take that as a kind of backhanded compliment. Yeah that all unfolded over about 10 minutes.
BGN: It was all right then and there in the action. Wow!
Otto: Yeah I mean… we’d just met as well. So I didn’t have the rhythm of the translation down or anything. We just had to capture what was happening. Yeah we had 3 angles goings – 3 cameras: The GoPro, Chris at the bottom, and then me and Asher on the side. And yeah, we went for it. We can’t do any reconstruction on that!
Otto: So yeah, we got it all in one take. It was good. It was stuff like… the translation was tough. So, you can’t really direct them. You can’t go like, “Hey guys, back to one!” There was none of that. What was helpful is we filmed a lot of her training. So by the very nature of the training they’re doing things again and again and again. So we would kind of get a sense of what was happening and how it was working. That allowed us to jump around and shoot from multiple angles. So the training really helped with getting multiple beautiful angles. Honestly, a lot of it is due as well to my editor, Pierre. He worked, even on the Winter sequence… he must have worked for about a month on getting that Winter sequence right. And that’s why it feels seamless. It’s just amazing editing.
BGN: The Winter stuff was so… I can’t even imagine trying to shoot under those conditions. I mean, the horses are sliding on the ice! I was scared for the horses at one point! When you see them and their hoofs can’t get any traction on the ice and I was like, “They’re going to fall!” And then you have this aerial shot and you can see that it’s not fully frozen, and I’m like, “Oh my god! 1,000 lbs. animals on ice!” And it’s so positive at that point that you’re like, “there’s no way it ends well.”
BGN: But, it does. Don’t be afraid! I don’t want to give away the end, let’s track back a little bit. What’s really cool about your character is when we see a lot of heroines, usually you see them as tomboys. I actually just saw a review that describes her as a tomboy, and I’m like, “from what angle do you see her as a tomboy?” We see her buying her reds and she’s hanging out with all of her girlfriends and laughing.
BGN: I love the dormitory scene. They’re so supportive and they’re also like, “we could never… never do that!”
Otto: (laughs) Yeah!
BGN: When did you decide to delve into her girlhood?
Otto: About halfway through.
Otto: So… I was filming all these beautiful, well at least to me it’s beautiful –
BGN: (laughs) of course you think it’s beautiful! You shot it!
Otto: I was filming all these lovely soaring sequences and stuff and I was showing it to friends and family, like what I’d been gathering. They had all these everyday questions: “What do they eat?” and “Where does she go to school?” and “What does she do when she’s not eagle hunting?”. I started to think, “Okay, I’m going to need to balance this out.”
We kind of have 3 big peaks in the film, we’ve got the steal, the festival, and the hunt. I wanted to balance that out with little valleys of vérité, “let’s find out more about her.” We were getting some of that intimate stuff, but honestly I was also very conscious. I’m a man. I’m not… I’m a white man as well. What right do I have to tell this story? So I really wanted a woman’s perspective. So I got 2 great producers, Stacey and Sharon, who helped sort of behind the scenes, but then I got a lady called Martina Radwan. Beautiful, great documentarian in her own right. She’s actually adopted a couple of kids in Mongolia.
BGN: Oh wow.
Otto: So she’s been like 20 times. I know she’s great at vérité. She shot that wonderful Oscar short, Saving Face, about the acid victims.
BGN: Oh yes!
Otto: Yeah, beautiful film. So I knew she could deliver the vérité and she was out there. So I said, “Would you extend your stay?” and she went and lived with the family for a couple of weeks. Just kind of melted into the background and went to school with her. Just gave me a little more of that intimacy, that vérité. I was just really pleased to have a woman…
BGN: So did she actually shoot those scenes?
Otto: Yeah! Some of them!
BGN: That’s such a really cool idea!
Otto: Some of the intimate stuff is ours and then a lot of it she shot.
BGN: I think that’s such a huge idea, especially as a documentarian, I know that you’re trying to perceive the story and for you to have the awareness to be like, “If I put a woman in this situation maybe the girls will open up more. Maybe they’ll be a little more at ease.”
Otto: Yeah. I mean, Aisholpan and I, at this stage we’re friends for life. She’s very dear to me. The family has welcomed me into their family. Over time we certainly broke down the barriers and she totally is fluid and free. But yeah, it wasn’t even just her nature. I was just conscious, “we got to put a woman behind the camera. We’ve got to see what that brings.”
BGN: That’s very cool!
Talk to me about Aisholpan’s father who I found so…
Otto: He’s a dude.
BGN: (laughs) Yeah!
Otto: He’s a man!
BGN: He’s also just so… he brought me to tears several times. Just unflinching, fully supportive. You could tell he’s nervous about how other people will perceive her, but not about how she’s really going to do. He’s like, “No, you just have to go for that!” What is it like working with a parent like that? I just find him so inspirational.
Otto: No, he is. He’s an incredibly fair man. He is undoubtedly very supportive, but he also… she also earned it. She was taking on a lot of the jobs around that were traditionally done by males. She’s riding horses, she’s herding, she’s helping skin the animals, she’s out hunting rabbits with him, and she takes care of his eagle. He’s a 3-time eagle hunting champion.
Otto: So, she’s always been fascinated by the birds. Her Mom talks about calling over to the birds as a baby. So she’s doing a lot of this what’s traditionally seen as “boy’s work”, so she earned the right and she was quite cammy about it I think. She sort of traded, “well, if I’m going to do this I want to learn the basics of the eagle hunting.” He saw that she was a natural, that it was kind of in her blood.
BGN: For 5 generations, right?
Otto: 12, yeah. So she earned the right to do it. He supported her through that.
BGN: That’s so awesome! I also wanted to ask you a little bit about – this is your first feature length doc, you’ve done some shorts in the past – what was the transition first of all, going from these shorts to this feature? Was there a lot of growth that you had to do? Was it surprising or was it just the same process but longer?
Otto: It was interesting because I didn’t know what was going to happen. We were lucky enough to be there that first day that she started her journey. Often with docs you’re going in and you’re telling a story in retrospect or something that’s happened, there’s an occasion, a need for a documentary, and you have to fill that in with archieve and animation or interviews or whatever. But we were there from the first day and things kept happening to her. So all the production standards and interview techniques, which I’ve applied to the shorts, crossed over fine. Just the same sort of stuff, but the story kept unfolding.
What was interesting is the story dictates my production schedule as well. It took about a year to film and I used all my life’s savings and I actually had to borrow money from the bank.
Otto: I mean it’s great now that Sony Pictures Classic has picked it up!
BGN: Sure! Yes!
Otto: For a long time, it was really scary. It just kept going and going. The elders would throw down fresh challenges. Like, “oh find, one thing to win the fesitval, but she’ll never be able to hunt in Winter.”
BGN: I can tell you one of the loudest laughs of the festival that I’ve been to so far was after – right after she wins because there’s a series of shots.
BGN: With these guys who through the whole movie have been like, “What girl is going to compete in this competition? Even if she does come it’s going to be a joke.” And their faces are just like, “…This 13-year old won… and how…?” And then you slowly show that transformation of, “well that doesn’t mean anything anyway.”
BGN: Which is so typical of masculine society. When a girl does something it’s like, “well of course you did that, but you never do the REAL stuff. She’ll never catch a fox in the snow where some of the guys have trouble.” How did you find those guys and what was the experience like talking with them? They were hilarious. So funny. Even the wrongness, they’re just so genuine in their opinion.
Otto: (laughs) Yeah! So… many of the elders they live in a village that’s outside of the town that you saw. I just sort of went door to door and if I saw an eagle perched outside the ger (traditional Mongolian house), I would just go knock on the door and talk to them about eagle hunting and what it meant. How a lot of them sort of defined masculinity by eagle hunting. At the end of the interview I’d say like, “are there any girls doing this?” – “Oh no, no, no, no!”
Otto: So I did a round of interviews the first time I visited because I wanted to get a sense of what guys make of this. And then after she won the festival, the next morning I did another round of interviews and that’s when they – because initially they couldn’t even fathom the notion of a woman stepping into this world. There have been other eagle huntresses!
Otto: There’s been a few – not in her area, and none have ever competed in this festival. In that community, to a man, what we found is they couldn’t even fathom the idea of a woman taking on this pursuit. When she won… there was a laundry list of excuses: “Her Dad’s a great trainer” “The bird is exceptional”
BGN: It’s pretty similar to The Olympics! The men trained her so that’s how she became so good!
Otto: (laughs) Yeah! Or she won because all the tourists were there, ignoring the fact that she broke the record.
BGN: 5 seconds!
BGN: They were impressed with 12!
BGN: There’s a race with the bird, and they were 12 and they were like, “this is astounding!” She goes up next and it’s 5 seconds!
Otto: Demolishes the record.
BGN: It’s so fast!
BGN: Oh man! It’s so cool.
Otto: And I actually had to draw that sequence out. I don’t know if you noticed, but I put in like slow-mo. Honestly, it happened so fast that thing feel from the mountain like a missile.
Otto: So we drew it out a little bit so you could sort of take it in.
So she won that whole thing on merit. That’s what they couldn’t sort of process, and then came this other challenge. Like, “Oh well, you know… She’ll have to hunt in Winter. She’ll never be able to manage that.” So, again that’s why I was like, “I got to find some more money to get back” because they were going hunting come hell or high water. I had to be there for that.
BGN: Talk to me a little bit about – because that’s such a huge gamble – why did you sit in it? Why were you like, “You know what, it’s worth it. It’s worth my life savings. It’s worth having to go into debt to try to get this story out there.”
Otto: Over the course of filming I started to feel a sense of responsibility to the family – to tell their story. So it almost became irrelevant how I was going to pay for it. I just – it had to be told. It had to be shown. Of course, I had already got these incredible moments: the steal, her winning this festival. I knew we were on to something incredible. It’s that thing of making a film with a compass and not with a map, do you know what I mean?
Otto: We just have to keep going. I cannot stop now. I cannot stop now.
BGN: That’s so interesting because you – I mean, I understand the emotional aspect to it, but you really could have stopped at the festival. It’s such a great climax and if you had wanted to, if you were just like, “You know what, I’ve invested everything I have. We got the festival. It looks greats.” To go that extra mile to the part that was clearly important to her.
Otto: Well, that’s exactly it. You’re exactly right. The festival was great. That was public – it was a public victory. But that final step to becoming – to graduate into full eagle hunter status? That’s the hunt.
Otto: That’s her personal victory. Right? We didn’t finish with the trophy, we finished with her saying, “Yeah, I’m truly happy.”
BGN: “I’m happy now.”
Otto: Yeah. And I like that there. (laughs)
Otto: And that was important.
I work at New York Film Academy, we’ve got a lot of doc students and I’m curious if you would have any advice for them as they’re entering this field.
Otto: Oh sure! Just never give up. Never give up. If you found it and you know you found it, just move heaven and earth to get it done. Finish it. Finish it.
BGN: Finish the work. It’s my favorite philosophy. That’s great!
BGN: Thank you so much for your time, Otto! I really appreciate it, it’s been wonderful!
Otto: It was so lovely meeting you. Thank you. Thank you very much!
The Eagle Huntress will be released in theaters on November 2nd