Every documentary film is a journey, just not always across four continents. But that's the arduous path that married filmmaking team Elisabeth Haviland James and Revere La Noue are taking to shoot Overland, a feature-length film about the ancient art of falconry, or hunting with birds of prey.
Tracing the spread of the 6,000-year-old tradition, James and La Noue have filmed, or are planning shoots, in Mongolia, the United Arab Emirates, European countries including Italy and Scotland, and the American West. It's no coincidence that the development of modern civilization traced a similar arc across the globe.
"These birds enabled nomadic tribes to survive without agriculture because they are sight hunters," La Noue says. "They could fly high up and hunt prey that people couldn't see from their camel's back. It made being a nomad or Bedouin possible in a way that other forms of hunting couldn't. So it enabled early people to not have to stay in one place. They could falcon while on caravan."
Thus far, James and La Noue have shot high-definition video on location in Kansas and the UAE, gaining unprecedented access to Emirati falcon racer Khalifa bin Mejren's breeding and training facility. Along with American falconer Lauren McGough, a former president of the Oklahoma Falconers' Association, Khalifa is the star of the character-focused Overland to this point.
"He's the Michael Jordan of competitive falcon racing," says James, an Emmy- and Peabody Award winner who also coproduced (with HBO) and edited the Oscar-shortlisted The Loving Story. "In an effort to keep this national heritage tradition alive, the Crown Prince in Dubai and the government in Abu Dhabi have decided to start these falcon races, and Khalifa is a world champion."
The film is sponsored by the Southern Documentary Fund and received seed funding from a National Endowment for the Humanities "Bridging Cultures Through Film" grant; the filmmakers also recently raised more than $20,000 in a crowdfunding campaign.
At the start of the project, James and La Noue intended to survey falconry across far-flung places in the hope of finding interconnections. They found that falconry continuously weaves disparate cultures and people together. McGough is getting her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology at St. Andrews in Scotland, studying Mongolian eagle hunters. Meanwhile, Khalifa's champion racing falcon is bred from Scottish and American parents, and Khalifa holds one of the few permits to legally trap birds in Mongolia. Drop the Emirati's name with dirt hawkers in the Midwest and you may find they've emailed him that week.
For La Noue and James, who are making Overland through their independent production company, The Falconbridge Collection, these cultural bridges have political potential in a difficult moment for the Western and Muslim worlds. In 1229, a mutual love of falconry helped Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and Al-Kamil, the Sultan of Egypt, negotiate the opening of Jerusalem to the Christian world in what's known as the Bloodless Crusade. It seems a relevant precedent.
Hoping to complete production by the end of 2016, the filmmakers will be spending almost as much time in the air as the birds they're filming. They plan to shoot this winter in the western United States as well as in France and Italy. Then they'll be in Scotland in the spring or summer before the back half of the year takes them to Ireland, Mongolia and again to the UAE. Amid that busy travel schedule, they're on the verge of announcing a "Talon to Table" fundraiser dinner planned for Durham this spring.
While Overland shows the power of falconry as a cultural connector, it also affords the opportunity to marvel at the craft of the practice as well as the magnificent birds themselves. James and La Noue convey their awe of the animals' majesty through high-definition close-ups and drone footage that swoops and circles in bird-like patterns. The falconers share that awe, describing the essential wildness of the birds even as they're perching on a gloved hand.
"Part of the excitement of the art form is that, every time you let your bird go, it could simply fly away," James says. "It could be the last time you see it. They're totally free."
La Noue agrees. "Falconers say that humans evolve, but birds don't. They love the timelessness of that. They're hunting with the same bird that people hunted with 6,000 years ago. Civilization has changed, but the birds haven't. That's a really beautiful idea."Correction: This article originally misidentified the production company behind Overland. It is The Falconbridge Collection, not Thornapple Films.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Millennial Falcon."