Director: Jennifer Peedom
Screenwriter: Jennifer Peedom
Runtime: 96 mins
Australian release date: 31 March 2016
Previewed at: Sony Pictures Theatrette, Sydney on 20 November 2015
Climbing Mount Everest is not for the faint-hearted yet every year a whole lotta people pay a whole lotta of money to do so.
Since 1953, when Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary ascended the peak for the first time, Nepalese Sherpas have been the main guides and porters assisting rich first-world mountaineers attempt to summit the mountain known to the locals as Chomolungma - the Earth’s Mother Goddess. Australian documentarian Jennifer Peedom’s unsettling film Sherpa is an insightful observation into the problems that face these two disparate groups, one caught up by the desire to conquer Everest and one needing to make a living from this treacherous activity.
The two groups literally clashed in 2013 when a brawl developed between a mob of disgruntled Sherpas and some European climbers after one of the Europeans was heard referring to “a motherfucking Sherpa.” This was probably an inevitable result, given that the Sherpas had spent many years risking their lives virtually babysitting Westerner climbers for little money (compared to the amounts being charged) and less respect. Peedom decided to return for the 2014 season to document events through the eyes of the Sherpas. After all, this is an industry that is worth over 350 million US dollars to the Nepalese government.
As with many documentaries, the story changed midway. In the early morning of April 18 2014, a 14,000 tonne block of ice crashed onto the climbing route through the Khumbu Icefall, killing 16 Sherpas, the biggest single tragedy to have ever occurred on the mountain. The shocking death of these Sherpas was naturally an issue that couldn’t be ignored and so Peedom’s film altered to cover the avalanche and its aftermath. The story unfolds through interviews with New Zealander Russell Brice, a long-term tour operator, writer/journo Ed Douglas, who was seriously concerned about the plight of the Sherpas, and Phurba Tashi, who was leading 25 men on his 22nd ascent. The Sherpas’ position is also revealed in an interview with Phurba Tashi’s wife, Karma Doma, who didn’t want her husband to follow in the footsteps of her deceased brother (he’d recently died on the mountain).
Peedom brings all this to the fore in an excellent portrayal of conscience versus profit, of men and money, of the desire to climb and the need to live. Sherpa will probably be the closest that most of us get to scaling such rarified heights and it’s a thrilling experience viewed from the safety of a cinema seat. Cameras were attached to the helicopters flying in and out of base camp and to some of the Sherpas caught in the avalanche (fortunately the men survived), giving us an incredible insider’s view of the dramatic events. The film was nominated for a Best Documentary Award at the BAFTAs and won the Best Documentary prize at this year’s Film Critics Circle of Australia Awards. It is a fitting accolade for a magnificent piece of filmmaking.