The Eagle Huntress

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“Where eagles dare.”

No matter how bad-ass you are, you’ll never attain “13-year-old Mongolian girl, standing astride a mountain, holding the trained golden eagle she raised from a chick, after climbing down a cliff to get it” levels of bad-ass. That’s what we have here, folks, in this documentary about Aisholpan. She’s a Mongolian teenager who wants to become an eagle huntress, a profession traditionally reserved for the male lineage. Her father Rys learned the skills necessary (and, presumably, inherited the really large, very well-padded glove) from his father, and so on.

In the absence of a suitably-aged son, and given Aisholpan’s interest, Rys is happy to show her the ropes. Literally. As in the ones used to prevent her falling off the steep cliff-face she has to descend to pluck her eaglet from its home. For, as we learn, there’s only a brief period between the chicks being able to survive away from their mother, and them leaving the nest, during which they can be taken. We also discover, there’s apparently no word in Mongolian for “child endangerment.” There’s then the training process, as the bird grows up, for instance to get it to come when called. Though “politely asked” would be wiser than “called”. You don’t order around something like the full-sized and scary creature shown on the right.

The first dramatic moment is Aisholpan’s participation in the annual golden eagle festival, which takes place in a nearby (by Mongolian standards – it’s only a day’s ride away) town. She’s not only the youngest participant, she’s the first woman ever to take part. Some of the veterans and elders are interviewed, and are not exactly happy about it. Though their opposition doesn’t appear to go any further than mild levels of harumphing; it’s not as if there’s any active attempt to stop her participation. This could be because the film does seem to over-state Aisholpan’s uniqueness for the sake of cinematic drama. History actually provides much evidence for her female predecessors.

However, there’s still an enormous amount here to appreciate and enjoy, not least a plethora of panoramas, sweeping across the staggeringly beautiful Mongolian plains. You also get a new respect for eagles, creatures whose size is not apparent in the air, and only when you see one perched on the heroine’s arm, it’s razor-sharp beak inches from her eye. Then there’s Aisholpan herself, who clearly gives not one damn for any constraints “tradition” might want to place on her, and goes about her eagle-training business with an infectious smile. Oh, and she’s studying to be a doctor when she grows up. If she went on her rounds with an eagle on her arm, so much the better, I’d say.

Finally, we get to bask in the gloriously stunned silence of the elders, after Aisholpan has demonstrated her skills (and, admittedly, those of her avian familiar) at the tournament. They then point out that, well, anybody – even a girl – can do well enough in the comfortable setting of a field. She could never withstand the harsh conditions faced by real hunters, in the mountains. Guess where Aisholpan’s next stop is? Yep. She takes her bird and heads off into those mountains, through snowdrifts which reach up to the flank of her horse, to hunt foxes for their fur. In terms of teenage empowerment, it sure beats getting a tattoo and hanging out at the mall.

Dir: Otto Bell
Star: Aisholpan Nurgaiv, Rys Nurgaiv, Daisy Ridley (narrator)

Dragon Girls

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“…and you thought your school sucked.”

dragon-girlsIf you’re familiar with Jackie Chan’s life story, you’ll know he (along with fellow future start Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao) was basically brought up in a Peking Opera school, where he learned martial arts and acrobatics as well as theatrical skills. Discipline there was notoriously strict – the film Painted Faces gives a good idea of what it was like. But that was the sixties. Surely no such abusive educational regime exists nowadays?

Well… This documentary suggests otherwise, though the scale is rather different. For the Shaolin Tagu school that’s the subject here says it has 35,000 staff and pupils on a half-million square metre campus. When you see the opening, the screen filled from side to side and top to bottom with synchronized martial artists, it’s not implausible. However, the reasons why parents send their children to these places haven’t changed a lot. Typically the family is too poor, or the kids are too much of a handful, possibly heading into delinquency, and they believe the discipline will straighten them out.

The film focuses on some of the girls, some as young as nine, enrolled in the school, including one who had run away in the middle of the second year, and returned to her family. As well as the pupils, there are interviews with the coaches, the head of the school (“A community’s backbone is shaped by rules,” he says. “In here, those rules are very strict.”) and the chief monk at the nearby Shaolin monastery, who offers a different (rather more laid-back!) perspective on what martial arts are about. There isn’t much in the way of narrative here. While there are mentions of a tournament, I didn’t realize it had taken place, until one of the participants was reporting to her disappointed father that she had failed to win first place. Some obvious questions are unanswered too, such as who is paying for this? Are these places state-sponsored?

Although the presence of the documentary crew may have reined in the harsher side of life at the school, the girls have no problem detailing the corporal punishment dished out, it seems at will, by the teachers, or the insect-contaminated food. There’s one scene where the girls compare scars and try to one-up each other, which plays disturbingly like a teen version of the similar sequence in Jaws. But it’s about the only one which sticks in the mind or goes any significant difference between the fairly obvious. I get the feeling we in the West are supposed to look on this disapprovingly, but there isn’t enough digging behind the facade to justify it. For you could likely make something not dissimilar about any high-pressure training environment here – say, for gymnastics. The main difference would probably be that, here, parents have other options…

Dir: Inigo Westmeier
Star: Xin Chenxi, Chen Xi, Guan Luolan, Yang Ziyu
a.k.a. Drachen Mädchen

2320 Days in the Jungle

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“[Crosses Colombia off holiday list]”

2320daysIn February 2002, Ingrid Betancourt was travelling through a rural area of Colombia, as part of her campaign in the presidential election for the Green Party. She was stopped at a road-block run by the Marxist rebel organization, FARC, and when they realized who they had, she and her assistant, Clara Rojas, were kidnapped. Betancourt would spent more than six years of jungle captivity with the guerillas, until she was rescued, in a startling piece of deception, by Colombian military forces. This documentary film tells her story, through archive footage and interviews with Betancourt, Rojas, other kidnappees and some of the FARC members.

The term “you couldn’t make this stuff up” gets thrown around a lot, but it’s probably apt here. The clearest example is the end, and the way Betancourt and her colleagues were freed. The authorities tapped into FARC’s communications channels and inserted an order that a humanitarian group would be transporting the hostages to meet the rebels’ leader. Except, the alleged group were actually soldiers pretending to be aid workers and journalists. They arrived, landing in a coca field with their helicopters, collected the prisoners and a couple of FARC officers, then took off, before taking the officers into custody and telling the kidnap victims, “We are the Colombian army. You are free.” [This deception was likely wise, since there had been a number of disastrous attempts to liberate other hostages by military means, ending in their death]

Many other facets also defy belief, from Betancourt’s multiple unsuccessful escape attempts through to Rojas getting pregnant by one of the guards, and being given a Caesarean section in the middle of the jungle.  It has to have been a hellish existence, the hostages being moved from place to place through the rain-forest to avoid being located by the authorities who were hunting for them – at one point, they were marched 40 days, for up to 12 hours a day. Her captors also deliberately attempted to spread dissension among their captives, in order to stop them from trusting each other and formulating escape plans. And it seems to have worked: even after his release, one of those held with Betancourt heavily criticized her, saying she was “the most disgusting human being I’ve ever encountered.” It’s always the way with documentaries; you’re never sure if you’re getting the whole story.

There’s certainly evidence of tension between Betancourt and Rojas. The former seems more actively inclined to try and escape, while the latter appears to be trying to avoid doing anything that could inflame their situation. During one of her breaks for freedom, Betancourt was spotted by a young female FARC fighter and tried to convince her they should leave together. The rebel said she understood, and that she also had a child in the outside world – but if she left, FARC would hunt them down and kill them both. I’d like to have heard more about these attempts, rather than hostage infighting, but this is still a chilling and effective story, which would make one hell of a movie.

Dir: Angus Macqueen
Star: Ingrid Betancourt, Clara Rojas, Luis Eladio Perez, Marc Gonsalves
a.k.a. Hostage in the Jungle

Warrior Women

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“If Xena was a history teacher.”

warriorwomenThis short series, originally produced for the Discovery Channel in 2003, consists of five, 45-minute episodes, each one focusing on a different historical figure. Specifically (and in Netflix-listed order), they are Joan of Arc, Grace O’Malley, Boudica, Lozen and “Mulan” – quotes for the last used advisedly, but we’ll get to that in a moment. The episodes themselves seem a little disjointed, composed of three separate elements that don’t quite mesh. You get talking-head interviews with academics and historical experts; dramatic re-enactments of events from the women warriors’ lives; and Lucy Lawless stomping around the locations, occasionally doing semi-practical demos like sword-wielding. The last seems particularly pointless, and seems inserted purely to appeal to Xena fetishists – not least the sequence where Lawless is getting woad applied on her face, and is informed by the giggling painter, that “the binding agent in this particular agent is semen.” And a thousand fan-fics were born…

The other main issue is, particularly in the early episodes, there isn’t anything new here – Joan, Grace and Boudica are all women whom we’ve written about here in the past, and you are largely watching them go over well-worn territory here. For example, it’s hard to imagine anyone interested enough in the topic to watch the show, will also not already have heard of Joan of Arc. The only one I hadn’t heard of before was Lozen, an Apache warrior and contemporary of Geronimo; however, the approach for this story is deadly dull, batting so straight down the “noble savage” archetype, that I literally fell asleep. The final episode is entitled “Mulan”, and I wondered how they were going to squeeze 45 minutes out of this, given virtually everything known about her is a single poem.  The answer, it turned out, was to spent 80% of the show talking about someone completely different from the late 18th century, whose sole connection to Mulan was being Chinese. This is a bit like titling your show “King Arthur” and then talking mostly about the Duke of Wellington. They’re both Brits, right?

That said, the actual topic, Wang Cong’er, a leader of the White Lotus Sect who rebelled against imperial rule, was a very good one. The story is one that certainly deserves to be better known – I’m quite surprised the movie industry there, which has mined many less interesting characters in the past, hasn’t developed anything based on her life, which had a nice, “heroic bloodshed” arc to it, right up to Wang flinging herself from a cliff, rather than let herself be captured. This is one where the various approaches mesh to excellent effect, despite the rather tenuous efforts to connect her to Mulan; not just building a living character, but putting her in a historical context that makes sense. It’s a shame the other four episodes only manage to achieve the same success on a sporadic basis.

Dir: Noel Dockstader and Patrick Fleming
Presented by: Lucy Lawless

The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne

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“Who said crime doesn’t pay?”

the_life_and_crimes_of_doris_payne_3By the time I reach the age of 80, I think I’m probably going to be content simply to be waking up each morning. Not so for Doris Payne, a woman whose first conviction for jewel theft came in 1952 and her last – or at least, her most recent, for I think we’ll only be sure she’s done when she’s six foot under – came sixty-two years later, at the age of 83. She’s the charming topic of this documentary, which both looks back over her criminal career as an expert international purloiners of diamonds, and at her then-current legal troubles. Was she still actually at it, almost two decades after normal retirement age? Or is this simply a case of her reputation preceding her, and causing a heinous case of mistaken identity?

It’s a wild tale, which would likely be rejected by Hollywood as implausible [there’s vague mentions of a movie version of Payne’s life, starring Halle Berry, though exactly how far that has got is left annoyingly vague]. According to Doris, She got her start when she was hustled out of a watch store by the owner, when a richer, less black customer came in, and he didn’t realize she still had the watch. Her adoption of a life of crime, using sleight of hand and distraction to confuse sales assistants, was in part a reaction to this – but it also opened the door to a life likely unobtainable to a poor, half-black half-Cherokee girl from West Virginia.

Her career likely peaked with a seventies theft of a 10-carat diamond ring in Monte Carlo, valued at over half a million dollars. Though arrested, she managed to hide the loot by sewing it inside her girdle. On another occasion, she jumped from a moving train in Switzerland to evade the authorities. But it’s the fact that she never stopped which makes for such an intriguing character. It may be a case of rampant kleptomania at work, with her skills now no match for technology, such as the unblinking eye of closed-circuit television, but it comes embodied in the adorable form of someone who you feel should be baking cookies for her grandkids. Which may, of course, be how she (more or less) got away with it for six decades, for the first rule of successful thievery is, don’t look like a successful thief. It’s that contradiction which powers the film, and you keep watching to find out whether she will be found guilty of the crime with which she has been charged. She certainly seems credible enough in her testimony – but, again, credibility is probably the second rule of successful thievery.

Mixing interviews, re-enactments and footage of her ongoing legal issues, the film probably errs too much on the side of falling in love with its subject, never probing beyond her surface or seeking to establish the validity when Doris provides her version of events. While they may have said in The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” a documentary is likely not the best format for such a collection of questionable tales, regardless of how appealing the teller may be.

Dir: Kirk Marcolina, Matthew Pond

Alias Ruby Blade

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“Make love, not war.”

alias_ruby_blade_posterI was, I will admit, only vaguely aware of East Timor before watching this documentary, to the extent I could probably not have pointed to it on a globe with any precision. For those in a similar position, it’s a chunk of an island just to the north of Australia, which was occupied by Indonesia in 1975, not long after the Portuguese abandoned their colony. This kicked off a long, bloody period of unrest, which ran for virtually the rest of the century, and pitted those fighting for independence against the Indonesian Army and local militia groups. Leading the independence movement, FRETLIN, was charismatic guerrilla Xanana Gusmão, until his capture in 1992. One of those helping him continue to lead the group from jail was undercover FRETLIN operative “Ruby Blade” a.k.a. Australian teacher Kirsty Sword. The film is the story of how she ended up becoming the First Lady of an independent East Timor.

At the time, she was working in Indonesia’s capital, Djakarta, as an English teacher, and also helping East Timor students there, doing work like translation, from where she gradually drifted into becoming more actively involved in their struggle. Under the guise of trips to East Timor, ostensibly for humanitarian purposes, she acted as a courier, spy, money launderer and international media liaison for FRETLIN, and also helped funnel members who were on the run out of the country, with the help of friendly embassies. Her initial contact with Gusmão was teaching him English by mail, but she eventually met him in 1994, bluffing her way into the prison by saying she was there to visit an Australian who was, at the time, also being held there. Thanks also to bribed guards, Sword set him up with everything needed to keep running things, including eventually a mobile phone and even a computer. Meanwhile, their own relationship was also growing. After Xanana was released in 1999 and East Timor became independent, the pair married, and he was elected as the nation’s first president in May 2002.

This 2012 documentary is infuriatingly vague, since it skips many of the details, for example omitting entirely incidents like an apparent coup attempt in 2008, which saw Sword besieged with their children in her home, while her husband’s motorcade was ambushed. I’d like to have heard more of the nuts & bolts about her clandestine work, and perhaps rather less footage of Gusmão in prison. The film does give a sense of the danger with some disturbing footage of actual dead bodies, and incidents such as the Dili massacre in 1991, when 250 demonstrators were gunned down by Indonesian soldiers. That incident was recorded by a documentary film-crew, whom Sword was helping, and the resulting footage proved a significant catalyst in bringing East Timor’s plight to world attention. But all told, this isn’t the documentary I would have made on the topic, being more concerned with being worthy than enthralling.

The World Before Her

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“Beauties and the beasts?”

worldbeforeherI love the double meaning of the title, which could mean either, “the world in front of her” or “the world of the past”. Both would be appropriate for the this documentary, which focuses on two contradictory and opposite facets of modern Indian culture, though both are redefining the ways in which women are portrayed. On the one hand, you have Ruhi Singh, a participant in the Miss India contest. In India, beauty pageants seem to have an unexpectedly feminist position, in contrast to how they are often seen in the west, as “cattle markets”; it’s pointed out, beauty is one of the few areas in Indian society where women and their opinions are seen as the equals of men. Then there is Prachi Trivedi, a young woman and fervent Hindu nationalist, fighting against exactly that kind of decadent Western culture, training with the Durga Vahini, the woman’s wing of a group that has been described as neo-terrorist in nature, and who protested against Miss World when the contest came to India in 1996.

The contrast between the two is certainly stark: Singh is elegant, clearly modern in outlook and does not believe foreign culture poses any threat to India. Trivedi, on the other hand, eschews make-up, years for a past unsullied by modern culture, and regards both Christians and Muslims as the enemy [as one training camp attendee puts it, in a thinly-veiled threat, “We have learned to use guns and we’ll use them if we have to. We will kill people if we need to”]. Yet, she rebels against her father’s beliefs that a woman’s first – indeed, sole – duty is marriage and having children, and readily acknowledges the inherent contradiction in being devoted to an organization that is intent on continuing to repress her. The film appears to be saying that the two are not too different in nature, sharing an independent streak – under other circumstances (and, probably, a makeover for Prachi), perhaps could be friends.

However, I’m not sure the film has too much more to say than that. It certainly doesn’t have anything new to add about the beauty pageant aspects, in part because Ruhi is fairly guarded and self-aware of her image, reluctant to commit to too much. This is not an issue for Prachi and her friends, who seem happy to speak candidly, not apparently caring about any potential reaction to soundbites such as, ‘Frankly, I hate Gandhi’. Personally, I found this made her a much more interesting character, compared to the pretty but bland Singh. About the sole startling revelation on this side of the cinematic equation was an almost casual admission that one contestant was almost aborted after her parents found out they were having a girl. Such is the contradiction of contemporary India, a society that in some ways is forging ahead, yet in others remains rooted in the past. The tension between these aspects has the potential to cause enormous issues as the country moves in to the future.

Dir: Nisha Pahuja

Fair Cop: A Century of British Policewomen

edithtmithThis month marks the 100th anniversary of the first British female police constable with the power of arrest, Edith Smith (right). The documentary below looks back at the history of women in the police force over the past hundred years, and how the role, attitudes (of both the public as well as their male colleagues) and even the uniform has changed during that time. Interesting to discover that the organized format started as the result of two effectively “vigilante” groups, who were formed to carry out volunteer patrols. One was mainly suffragettes, who were also fighting at the time for the right to work; the other, more genteel group of middle-class ladies, were the ones who obtained official sanction. At this time, the Great War was taking place, and just as World War II opened the doors to women in many areas, so did this conflict, with a large percentage of the male population being enlisted into the armed services.

Initially, women constables were tasked solely with handling children and other women – one of Smith’s main tasks was to address the prostitution problem, due to the large army presence near the town of Grantham where she was stationed. There were also restrictions which were not applied equally to men: they were forced to quit the force if they got married, it being deemed incompatible with the job. Some of these took a very long time to overcome; it wasn’t until 1994, for example, that policewomen in Northern Ireland were allowed to carry firearms for personal protection, something which had long been standard practice for men. But slowly, and not without some push-back, doors opened to other fields, from detective work through to the specialist units, and now certain areas have a majority female presence, such as the mounted police.  Now, there is no separation at all, something the film does acknowledge as not without its issues, in particular leading for a time to a horrendously primitive and uncaring approach to rape victims.

I think what I enjoyed most were the anecdotes told by the various women who had served, about their time in the police-force, and how they handled the situations in which they found themselves, which does a good job of bringing out the human side of the topic. Virtually every one of these officers comes over as resilient – likely a necessary attribute, I would imagine! – and sharp; the men interviewed largely praise the womens’ skills and abilities as equal to their own. It’s not a job I imagine is ever easy, and you’ll probably leave this film with a new-found respect for the women who take it on.

She-Wolves – England’s Early Queens

In the medieval and Tudor world there was no question in people’s minds about the order of God’s creation – men ruled and women didn’t. Yet despite everything that stood in their way, a handful of women did attempt to rule medieval and Tudor England. Historian Dr Helen Castor explores seven queens who challenged male power, the fierce reactions they provoked and whether the term ‘she wolves’ was deserved. Helen looks at what happened when England was faced not just with inadequate kings, but no kings at all.

Matilda and Eleanor

800 years ago Matilda almost became the first woman to be crowned queen of England in her own right. Castor explores how Matilda reached this point and why her bid for the throne ultimately failed. Her daughter-in-law Eleanor of Aquitaine was an equally formidable woman. Despite being remembered as the queen of courtly love, in reality during her long life she divorced one king and married another, only to lead a rebellion against him. She only finally achieved the power she craved in her seventies.

jane mary elizabeth

Isabella and Margaret

In 1308 a 12-year-old girl, Isabella of France, became queen of England when she married the English king. A century later another young French girl, Margaret of Anjou, followed in her footsteps. Both these women were thrust into a violent and dysfunctional England and both felt driven to take control of the kingdom themselves. Isabella would be accused of murder and Margaret of destructive ambition. But as historian Helen Castor reveals, their self-assertion that would have seemed natural in a man was deemed unnatural, even monstrous in a woman.

Jane, Mary and Elizabeth

In 1553, for the first time in English history all the contenders for the crown were female. In the lives of these three Tudor queens – Jane, Mary and Elizabeth – she explores how each woman struggled in turn with wearing a crown that was made for a male head. Elizabeth I seemed to show that not only could a woman rule, but could do so gloriously. But at what cost?

Maidentrip

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“A two-year round-the-world voyage. Filmed, apparently, in real time.”

MaidenTrip-posterWhat were you doing when you were 14? Going to school. Hanging out with friends. Being highly irritated by your parents. That’s probably fairly close. I’m quite sure the answer isn’t “spending two years sailing around the world by yourself.” Which would be Laura Dekker’s answer. The film chronicles her single-handed sailing expedition, as well as the path of her life which led her to the epic voyage, and the battle against the Dutch government, who considered the trip dangerous, and wanted to remove Laura from parental custody as a result.  [That aspect reminded me of Ready to Fly, where the women ski-jumpers also had to go to court as part of their battle for acceptance]

The bulk, however, is about the trip itself, with the on-board footage all filmed by Dekker herself, for obvious reasons connected to the word “single-handed” – fortunately, my fears of sub-Blair Witch shakycam proved unfounded. The main problem is the almost complete lack of any drama here. Maybe there’s more if you are a sailing enthusiast, but about as exciting as it gets, is a bit of rough weather and a bird that takes refuge on the deck. The only narrative tension is Laura’s decision to switch from sailing under the Dutch flag to that of the country where she was born (on a boat), New Zealand. I appreciate that you can’t manufacture drama where none happened, but this seems less like the taxing and potentially lethal endeavour it would seem to be, and more like a jaunt around a village pond on a slightly-overcast Saturday afternoon. One bit of ocean blends into another, and perhaps the most interesting parts are during Dekker’s sometimes lengthy stopovers en route, where she explores the local landscape.

Dekker herself generally comes over as remarkably mature for her age – 14 when she started, 16 by the time she completed the circumnavigation – albeit occasionally a bit bratty. That’s perhaps exacerbated by her basically fending for herself for two years, though if you’ve raised a teenage girl, you’ll know that’s pretty much par for the course, and any self-centredness is backed by an ability to handle whatever the world throws at her, well in excess of that possessed by a normal adolescent. However, nor is there much sense of character development, and you don’t get any sense the Laura you see at the end was changed in any significant way by her experience. The film definitely needs to dig deeper into what makes Dekker tick, and the apparent failure to do so, leaves it as not much more than a shallow, if pretty, travelogue. The heroine deserves a bit better.

Dir: Jillian Schlesinger
Star: Laura Dekker