A film by Meredith Kennedy DVM and Carl Palazzolo DVM
A Golden Eagle, abandoned by her own kind and raised by humans, struggles to find her way between two worlds. Ultimately she must choose between freedom and family, between Heaven and Hell, between life and death.
Filmed on location in the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia, the story chronicles the age-old Kazakh tradition of Horseback Eagle Falconry, and explores the connections and conflicts between people and wild animals.
While I filmed with Mana's family in Sagsai, I ditched the tripod and found other, more convenient places to rest the Canon 1DX with the 500 mm lens.
Dr. Carl Palazzolo, DVM, Director of Photography, owner of Long Beach Animal Hospital. lbah.com
Ardak carries the eagle as he gallops toward Carl, who's filming him with the C100 video camera. At least the horse and Ardak might have a chance to keep warm like this, moving around in the minus-twenty-degree weather, but for us stationary photographers it gets a little chilly!
Carl has draped his parka hood over the camera to help keep it warm.
Carl and I did some practice filming with Harris Hawks in California, before traveling to Mongolia for the first film shoot in February. Our friend the falconer has two Harris Hawks, and kindly invited us to come out and film while she trained and hunted with them. Not only are the birds themselves fine and beautiful, but seeing the relationship between a wild animal and their human partner is exactly what we're interested in for The Twelfth Eagle.
Working with our friend the falconer in California has been a great introduction to the very special partnership falconers have with their birds.
Ardak and his Golden Eagle represent thousands of years of Kazakh tradition, a partnership between raptors and people that goes back before the days of Genghis Khan. The Twelfth Eagle explores this history, the relationship between people and eagles, and contemporary challenges for both.
No matter how many times I see the eagle launch herself from Ardak's arm, it takes my breath away.
The peaceful calm of this picture doesn't give anything away of the drama that was unfolding in the valley below. While Ardak watched with his binoculars, a Tibetan gray wolf was attacking his sheep flock right outside his house. We were too far away to do anything but not the eagle--Ardak loosed her and she flew straight down to dive-bomb the wolf.
It really brought home the kinds of challenges the Kazakh people live with every day, out in these rugged mountains. This struggle for resources and survival forms the basis of the main storyline in The Twelfth Eagle.
Ardak's winter homestead, in the valley outside Altai Village. During the summer, he and his family will move all of their livestock up into the mountains near the Chinese border, for grazing, milking and making cheese, and cutting grass to prepare for the winter.
This is the toothbrushing facility in a corner of the main living area in the Altai house, shared by the whole family.
Sitting with Ardak (on the left, next to Meredith) and his wife, son and little daughter. The whole family was very accommodating and hospitable.
An advantage of filming Horseback Eagle Falconry is that there are always horses available to act as 'quadripods.' It got to be too much trouble to keep taking the tripod along when we were out in the mountains.
It's about a five hour drive from the town of Ulgii to Altai Village, where we do most of our filming for The Twelfth Eagle. In September I'm planning on making this trip on horseback, along with the Eagle Falconers who will be coming down from the mountains for the Golden Eagle Festival (October 1st and 2nd).
Our filming location is in the far west of Mongolia in the Altai Mountains, very close to Kazakhstan.
At 15 to 17 pounds, these Golden Eagles are some of the largest raptors in the world. They do best when they can launch from higher ground and soar across a valley, using their incredible vision to spot prey.
Balapan means 'eagle chick,' and Ardak had had this beautiful girl for six years, raising and training her from a young chick. Kazakh Eagle Falconers keep their eagles for a number of years (usually 7-10) and then release them, so they can return to the wild and reproduce. Balapan the eagle was released to the wild at the end of our summer film shoot.