25. Sherpa, directed by
Jennifer Peedom

25. Sherpa, directed by
Jennifer Peedom

Peaking Tensions in Sherpa


Shrouded in mist, sinisterly brooding, stands the towering Mount Everest. Over the years, this awe-inspiring natural monument has been harnessed by man into both a challenge and a commodity. Jennifer Peedom’s sweeping images of the mountain, and real footage of snow, still and falling, often remind us that this should not – and at times cannot – be done.

Sherpas – an ethnic group of people living in Nepal – have known for years that to toy with Mount Everest is to toy with your life. Inextricably linked to their religious beliefs, Mount Everest is recognisable as their Mother God of Earth. In the same way that Uluru has been violated in the eyes of our Indigenous Australians, so too has Everest through the lens of the Sherpas.

Setting out to make a film about the relatively unobserved Sherpas, the immediacy of the documentary became more powerful when an unforeseeable event occurred during filming. In 2015, an earthquake triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest that killed nineteen people, including ten Sherpas. Literally within minutes of the film’s opening, this avalanche tumbles over the screen, blanketing us into blackness. For Peedom, it changed everything, and fed into the unfolding tale of the systematic, unfeeling exploitation of Sherpas on Mount Everest. The terrible disaster became emblematic of a greater issue that needed to be addressed.

From this event unravelled a history of the commercialisation of the Nepalese, and a years-long narrative of loss. The avalanche becomes the catalyst for a greater cause when the Sherpa’s basic human rights, along with their religious and moral beliefs, are ignored to ensure that the million dollar “show must go on.” Suffocated by grief, the Sherpas band together in a bid to suspend the Everest climbing expeditions, only to be betrayed not only by the climbing companies, but also by their own government. Captured inadvertently by Peedom is an historic moment, where tensions finally come to a head.

Scaling the treacherous Mount Everest, in action. (Arrow Media)

There is a gulf that exists between the Sherpa’s work and their recognition, in addition to reality of their work being eclipsed by the glorified climbers. Take the most famous example: Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. While the pair have become famously recognised as the first men to summit Everest in 1953, Hillary was the one who was knighted. Norgay received only a secondary medal. Further still, it is typically unheard that Norgay knew Everest better than anyone on the team, having climbed the mountain up to seven times previously. As Peedom herself notes, admitting the extensive work of the Sherpas (sometimes even dragging climbers up slopes) doesn’t fit the client’s “hero narrative”.

Today, Sherpas are responsible for securing ladders and ropes to perilous sections of the mountain for the clients, in addition to climbing with the group, supporting the team and acting as guides. Moreover, they haul all the equipment up and down (including oxygen tanks weighing 15 kg each), and set up tents, chairs and camps at each climbing altitude. Meanwhile, during all this hard work, the clients get acclimatised to the altitude. The tension felt by the Sherpas, their workload and the lack of respect with which they are treated, is only compounded by each generation’s increasing education. Smart and informed, their confidence to seek recognition grows as a people, much to the dismay of Western expedition leaders.

It becomes clear during the documentary that the approaches that Westerners and Sherpas have towards Everest are in stark opposition. Economics drive both sides, but from polar opposite perspectives. One is fuelled by greed, the other by survival. For expedition operators like Russell Brice, the mountain climbing business is a multi-million dollar one. For Western climbers, Everest is an expensive challenge; a pricey accomplishment, costing up to one hundred thousands dollars.

Traditional prayer flags that feature all throughout Nepal. (Arrow Media)

Sherpas, on the other hand, receive barely a fraction of this profit – a few measly thousand for unceasingly risking life and limb. For them, however, this amount – though an insult to the strenuous and perilous work they do – is approximately ten times the annual general income of regular Nepalese workers. For them, it is a livelihood that provides for their families and friends. The risk and reward are vastly disproportionate, but with little option and mouths to feed, they are compelled to join this thankless type of work. By juxtaposing different perspectives, Peedom unearths untruths, particularly during the strike period, inciting our outrage and, when combined with personal accounts, empathy.

Threaded throughout the film is a motif of religion, which viscerally underscores the spiritual importance of Mount Everest for the Sherpas. It is beautifully shot, with gracefully slow images of smoke and candles packaged together with spine-tingling chants. Delicately captured, too, are the Nepalese bent in prayer, mid-way through puja, a holy tradition that asks the mountain for permission to climb. This spiritual connection to Everest is particularly serious after the avalanche, when the bodies of the deceased Sherpa can’t be retrieved. In their religion, this means they can’t be reincarnated and that “their spirits can never find peace.” As outsiders, we forget that for Sherpas, the spiritual import of climbing is just as weighty as the physical risks.

Director Jennifer Peedom, in the icy Nepalese terrain. (Australia Onscreen)

This would have been an extremely challenging film to shoot, partly due to the environmental factors, and partly because of the inflammatory and solemn atmosphere. Despite these difficulties, Sherpa is a master class in documentary making – the pinnacle of what a documentary can be, and what it can achieve. The volatile tenor is so potently captured, while imbuing the story with respect and executing it with grace. Crisp audio from the mountain transports us there, as the wind howls and the ice and snow cracks. New technology such as Go-Pros and ‘movi’ devices help achieve memorable shots, like the opening avalanche.

Every filmic technique is expertly used in this unflinching exposé, engaging us on every level, whether it’s through taking our breath away sensorially, or directly connecting us with the Sherpa’s stories. Thus, we are invested wholeheartedly, on an emotional, intellectual and even spiritual level. While there is a cyclic nature to the film, hinting at the unchangeable nature of big businesses, there is also a shaft of hope. Individual choices can transform at least one life, and realigning yourself to your values can be life changing. Empathy, knowledge, love and hope are perhaps the most important characteristics we can build, and this film inspires them all.

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Jennifer Peedom

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