In 2013 a brawl between Sherpas and client climbers at the 21,000ft base camp of Mount Everest made news headlines. The Sherpas, an ethnic group of people living in the Himalayas, have been popularised as calm, cooperative and optimistic people who were always willing to assist foreign climbers achieve their dreams of reaching the Everest summit. But, something had made the Sherpa’s express an unusual emotion – anger. A serious verbal insult, in addition to the clearer realisation that their irreplaceable services were being exploited as the industry continues to boom, and the fact that their assignment of the highest proportion of risk was not being compensated. Add in their dismay at the escalating desecration of Everest’s sacred and natural wonders as a result of heavy expedition traffic, and this was enough to send a few over the edge when disrespected and provoked.
Director Jennifer Peedom sensed that the hostilities would still be lingering during the 2014 climbing season so she set out to make a film from the Sherpa’s point-of-view. While there, she captured the tragedy that has significantly changed the Everest climbing industry – an avalanche on the perilous Khumbu Icefall that would take the life of 16 Sherpas as they prepped for the climbing season – and her film would take on a new direction.
Sherpa is an admirably balanced film that offers a provocative document of a high-altitude worker’s rights movement which eventually led to a drastic reappraisal of the role of the Sherpas, and how, through grief and unity, this spiritual people managed to reclaim professional respect. They also recapture a sense of power and ownership over the mountain that serves as an essential part of their religion; the mountain they call Chomolunga, or “Mother of the World”.
Sherpa premiered at the 2015 Sydney Film Festival as part of the Official Competition, and the immediate reactions were positive. Almost 12 months later – bolstered by international acclaim and numerous awards – it is returning to Australian screens. Breathtakingly photographed by Renan Ozturk (an expert climber and filmmaker, he was one of the subjects of mountaineering documentary Meru), it is definitely a film that should be experienced in the cinema.
Once upon a time Everest was an insurmountable beast; a bucket-list wish that few dared to conquer. In 1953, New Zealander Edmund Hillary became a global celebrity for becoming the first climber to reach the summit. Accompanying him on the journey – and also drawing immediate fame – was Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. His smiling face became a symbol of the people, and part of the experience has become befriending and climbing with these tranquil locals. But, do the clients really know how much the Sherpas do for them? How much they risk their lives? How much these people humbly accept for their services? While this multibillion dollar industry dumped a heap of cash into the hands of the Nepalese Government, those that most directly contribute to its frontline functioning remain poor.
New Zealand mountaineer Russell Brice, the owner of one of the many expedition companies that set forth for the summit every year, makes up a large part of the film’s focus. He is a man who finds himself in a tough spot following the tragedy; fearful of the conditions on the mountain, conscious of the best interests of his business and the industry, while also clearly caring about the rights and safety of the Sherpas in his employ. While his clients observe the demonstrations, and wait and see whether they still have a shot at their dream, they express their frustration to the camera.
One climber likens the Sherpa strike to a terrorist act, and Brice has to deal with the expectations of his clients and respect the quiet (and often not obviously communicated) wishes of the Sherpas he works with. There is enormous pressure on the company to deliver on their promise – to get their clients to the summit. They have paid huge amounts of money and a ridiculously small share goes to the Sherpas. This is the core question: why should they risk their lives because there is someone willing to pay them to do so?
We feel like a guilty eavesdropper on the protests; an outsider who could never understand exactly what the Sherpas are going through. Peedom gives us opportunity; taking us into the home of veteran Sherpa Phurba Tashi, and capturing the pre-climb rituals participated by Sherpas and clients alike. This captivating reactive documentary is even-handed, respectful and resonating, a deeply saddening portrait of a human rights victory amidst great tragedy.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Jennifer Peedom
Writer(s): Jennifer Peedom
Starring: Phurba Tashi, Russell Brice
Runtime: 96 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: March 31, 2016 (limited)