Australian filmmaker Jennifer Peedom has been working in the Himalayas for ten years on different films. Admitting her frustration at repeatedly seeing the Sherpas and their stories reduced to clippings on the cutting room floor, she set out to make the Sherpas’ story front and centre in her own eye-opening film. Peedom’s documentary Sherpa is the first outing of the second season of Lotterywest Festival Films. It features the skilled cinematography of Renan Ozturk, a filmmaker and climber, whose expertise would have come in handy for the shots taken at high altitude.
The documentary is an homage to the Sherpa people who risk their lives working with the climbing groups hoping to scale the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest. The optimum climbing season is in Spring, in April to May, although even then it remains a treacherous undertaking.
Originally, the film set out to document the life of one Sherpa in particular, Phurba Tashi Sherpa, who would be summiting Everest for the world-record-breaking 22nd time during the 2014 season. However, tragedy struck during filming, when 16 people, 13 of them Sherpa, were killed by an avalanche on the notorious Khumbu Icefall. Peedom and her team were there to document what unfolded.
Phurba did not perish in the avalanche and was still a main player in the film, however the story became completely different. Climbing groups were keen to still attempt to scale the mountain after the disaster, but the Sherpas wanted to cancel the season out of respect for those who died. Not helping the situation was the Nepalese government’s offer of a paltry compensation to the families of the deceased. The situation brought the plight of the Sherpas to the fore, who had been working in terrible conditions in this hugely profitable industry for many, many years.
The Sherpas banded together in the wake of the avalanche and demanded better pay and conditions, plus increased compensation for the victims’ families from the government. “They are a people moving towards self-determination, which is a very natural thing,” said Peedom to The Guardian. “Sherpas are becoming better educated and going overseas. They’re getting climbing credentials and coming back [to the western expedition leaders] and saying: ‘I’m as good as you.’ That puts pressure on the status quo.”
In the documentary Phurba is working with tour operator Russell Brice, whose presence gives us an insight into the climbing groups and how they function, in stark contrast to the hard work and daily struggles of the Sherpas. It also shows how some of the paying climbers view the Sherpas. “Can’t you just talk to his owner?” one climber states on camera (much to the indignation of the audience on the evening I saw the film).
Sherpa contains breathtaking images of Everest, of Phurba’s village, and its people. It perfectly highlighted for me that I’m not the adventurous type. I have no aspiration to climb Everest: I’m more one for the great indoors. Having said that, I still appreciated the vast, beautiful scenery and having an insight into the little reported on stories of the Sherpa.
The film’s narrative and images commanded my attention, and I was captivated for all 96 minutes. All that snow and ice is the perfect antidote to the gruelling summer days we’ve been having, so check it out. Plus, you might just learn something.
Gemma reviewed Sherpa on RTRfm’s Breakfast with Caitlin on Tuesday, Feb 9th. Here’s a link to the podcast.
Sherpa is now showing as part of Lotterywest Festival Films, Season 2. At UWA Somerville nightly until Sunday 14 February, then at ECU Joondalup Pines from Tuesday 16 to Sunday 21 February. Tickets/more info: perthfestival.com.au