Jennifer Peedom’s acclaimed documentary Sherpa focuses on the working lives of the Sherpa people, specifically those who famously assist foreign mountaineering parties as they attempt to climb Mt. Everest in Nepal. Peedom and her crew set out to make a documentary about the 2014 climbing season from the Sherpas’ perspective, partly because the 2013 season had been marred by a series of confrontations between the Nepalese people and the foreign climbers (one of which is captured on film here). In the event 2014 turned out to be a fateful year for another reason: 16 Sherpas were killed on the Khumbu Icefall while taking equipment up in preparation for a summit attempt by tourist climbers. In the aftermath of the tragedy the remaining Sherpas decided they did not want to climb again in 2014, partly out of respect for the dead, partly through fear, and partly to negotiate better pay, working conditions and compensation for bereaved families. Although the Sherpas are handsomely rewarded in Nepalese terms, earning the equivalent of an average year’s wages in the space of a month, it’s still a relative pittance in comparison to the six figure sums the tourists pay to mountaineering expedition groups (which have their own overheads to cover), and the considerable portion that is subsequently pocketed by the Nepalese government. It’s this injustice and inequality that lies at the heart of the film.
One reason for friction between the Sherpas and the foreign climbers is the issue of respect. The Sherpas work hard and take incredible risks in order to pave the way for those waiting at Everest Base Camp, and although plenty of the climbers interviewed here appreciate their efforts, show respect and form strong bonds with the local men, it’s the ones who can’t hide their contempt that stand out. When a small number of Sherpas are identified as being ‘ringleaders’ during the negotiations with expedition organisers and the government – i.e. those who are being more forceful with their demands for workers’ rights – an American man enquires whether the Sherpas’ ‘owners’ can do anything about them, which is an unfortunate way of referring to their western employers, to say the least. The same man – at least I think it’s the same man – later compares the Sherpas’ collective decision not to climb again that season as an act of terrorism. He’s completely serious.
The film suggests that the origin of this overbearing attitude – which is held by a minority of climbers – lies in the treatment of Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, the first Nepalese man to reach the summit. Norgay was portrayed as a passive, happy-go-lucky background figure by the world’s media, quite different to the way Edmund Hillary was depicted, and this seems to inform the views of a handful of ignorant mountaineers today, who want their Sherpas to be seen and not heard. The Sherpas, on the other hand, are right to push back and demand equal footing with their wealthy visitors. However, despite the unpleasant behaviour of some, it must be said that most of the temporary residents of Base Camp who appear in this documentary are above such immaturity and entitlement, and accept or support the decision not to climb despite their own individual disappointment, effort and financial loss (though I dare say if you’re spending north of $100,000 to climb Everest you can probably take the hit). Some documentary filmmakers would be tempted by the opportunity to repeatedly demonise the climbers, but Peedom finds a balance by highlighting the various ways their presence has (positively and negatively) impacted life in the Himalayas, and by interviewing several foreigners who are sympathetic to the Sherpa cause, and who understand their grief.
Peedom focuses on one Sherpa and his family in particular, and one expedition organiser, which makes for an interesting contrast in terms of how the aftermath of the tragedy is handled, particularly when discussions between these long-standing colleagues become awkward and cultural differences become more pronounced. (Interestingly, on that note, Norgay felt that he was crawling into the mountain’s lap, as opposed to the more arrogant notion of ‘conquering’ it.) The documentary has currency in the wake of the 2014 disaster and last year’s devastating earthquake, in which even more people died on the mountain, while on a lesser note it serves to right the whitewashing wrong of last year’s blockbuster Everest, which depicted the Sherpas as incidental characters. Needless to say Sherpa features plenty of magnificent footage of the mountain itself, as well as the surrounding peaks. It should inspire awe in all who see it, as was the case for this particular cinemagoer, who sat in a chair that was firmly bolted to the ground.
Directed by: Jennifer Peedom.
Written by: Jennifer Peedom.
Cinematography: Hugh Miller, Renan Ozturk, Ken Sauls.
Editing: Christian Gazal.
Music: Antony Partos.
Running Time: 96 minutes.