David Opie sits down with director Jennifer Peedom to discuss Sherpa, an inspiring documentary that follows a climbing expedition from the often overlooked perspective of the Sherpa community. The film is currently having a successful run at film festivals worldwide, winning Best Documentary at the London Film Festival, and our four star review is available to read here…
David Opie: Congratulations on winning The Grierson Award for Best Documentary at the London Film Festival. Sherpa is an astonishing achievement. What aspect of the film are you most proud of?
Jennifer Peedom: I think it would have to be the response from the Sherpa community. We just screened Sherpa at the Kathmandu Film Festival over the weekend and I’ve received so many messages from them there. Also, the film has had limited screenings in L.A., New York and at various film festivals, where there’s always been this big Sherpa turn-out. There’s a validation that I didn’t get it wrong, that I captured the essence of what their struggle is. It’s a relief frankly.
DO: In the archive footage, you show how Tenzing Norgay didn’t receive the same credit as Edmund Hilary for reaching the summit way back in 1953. Why do you think the Sherpas role in climbing Everest has been so overlooked by the media in the past?
JP: I used to work on a number of Himalayan expeditions when I was younger and since I’ve got to know this particular Sherpa team, I’ve noticed how the community always end up on the cutting room floor, even if they do actually manage to get filmed. I think it’s because there’s sometimes a Western attitude involved, where giving recognition to others somehow takes away from your own achievement. It’s still an amazing achievement to climb Mt Everest, but it doesn’t suit that hero narrative. A lot of people go to Everest to try and conquer something in their lives. That mountain is a metaphor for a lot of things.
I often hear people say things like “I climbed Everest unsupported,” to which I say, “What does that even mean?” “How do you even climb without a Sherpa?” “Who laid the ladders, who fixed the ropes, who carried all of your equipment and the food you ate?”
There were some amazing years when people did work in cooperation with the Sherpas, but this changed in the 1980s, when the Nepalese government opened the mountain up. Everest holds a special place in our imaginations, it’s a really potent symbol. Everyone wants a piece of that romance and history, so when they get there and find how tough it is, they’re quite happy to lean on someone to give them a hand.
When I ask if anyone’s been disrespectful to the Sherpas, they usually say no in most cases. However, they also say that it’s often when the climbers go home and tell their story to their family or on the public speaking circuit, that’s when they omit the part where the Sherpas helped them. That’s when they forget that the Sherpas saved them or carried them off the mountain. Thats when they forget the Sherpas names and contribution. In their minds, they start to feel like they did it all on their own.
DO: You’ve worked on a number of features about Everest. How was Sherpa originally conceived? Has this been a story you’ve wanted to tell for a long time?
JP: It’s been bubbling away for a long time. When I first went to the Himalayas in 2003, I made a little piece the following year for Dateline, an Australian broadcast program, that was about the Sherpas. Whenever I’ve filmed anything about the Himalayas, I’ve always been more interested in the Sherpas perspective. I always thought that was an interesting angle. Maybe as a woman, I bring a different perspective to it. I’ve always seen an interesting conflict there. In the intervening decade, the tension of that dynamic and the chasm between those two things has seemed to amplify.
The last time I went to the Himalayas before filming Sherpa was 2006, but I kept an eye on the news. When I heard about the big brawl in 2013, I’d already been thinking about developing this story and I thought now is the time. Even though this fight may have just been a testosterone fuelled incident, it seemed more emblematic than that, a symptom of a much bigger issue. As explained in the film, the Sherpas are now much more well-educated, their training is better, and quite rightly, they want a bigger piece of the pie, with more acknowledgement and more respect.
DO: Towards the end of the film, the Nepalese government gave in to the Sherpa’s demands somewhat. Do you feel the community finally receive the respect and monetary compensation that they deserve?
JP: It definitely improved, but because climbing on Everest was cancelled again this season, due to the earthquake, we never got to see how things played out. It would be interesting to return next April or May to see how much things have changed. What the Sherpas did absolutely changed history. The fact that they did down tools made them realise that they had more power than they first thought.
Sherpa’s a sad film on a whole lot of levels, but I do think it’s really inspiring that the community took it upon themselves to lose a whole season’s earnings to stand up for what was right, at great financial cost. A lot of them said to me that they did not want the other Sherpas to have died in vain. They felt like they really needed to stand up to be counted.
It’s had a real impact on the industry because everyone now knows the conflict that the Sherpas were a part of. The mountain can’t be climbed without the Sherpas, without their permission and extremely hard work. I felt like we were witnessing history, which is why I felt compelled to keep filming.
DO: Obviously, this must have been an incredibly difficult film to shoot, particularly in the wake of the avalanche disaster. Did you ever reach a point where you thought about stopping the shoot entirely?
JP: There were some moments like that, but I felt the responsibility was too great to be honest. There were times where I had to drop my bundle and cry my eyes out before I kept going. There were other times where I had to put the camera down because what was happening was too graphic. I was at the helipad filming when the bodies were starting to come down and at that moment, it wouldn’t have been right to film. I had crew members in place to take the wider shots used in the film.
It was exhausting and relentless for the next two weeks after the avalanche. One of my former colleagues on the Everest Jump project told me that there had never been a day like this on Everest, where this many people had died in one day. I remember thinking, “Wow, okay, this is important.” The more experienced climbers just got it. Death happens a lot in mountaineering and they just found it easier to continue. Those without this experience found it very hard emotionally, but they stuck it out.
DO: The opening scene was particularly powerful, where the avalanche fell down on the climber wearing the GoPro helmet. What technology did you use to get some of those more difficult shots?
JP: I think that the newest piece of technology that gave a cinematic feel to the shots was a device called the movi. It’s essentially a lightweight steady cam that uses gyrostabilisers. There’s an amazing shot where two twin boys run out of the door of the lodge and sprint off down to school. Crew member Renan Ozturk was running full pelt right beside them the whole time, yet that shot still looks completely smooth. We also used the movi for the aerials, so it wouldn’t have that terrible handheld feel.
Most Everest documentaries are pretty badly shot, because it’s so hard to shoot well at high altitude, but we had an amazing team of cinematographers. In particular, it was a huge bonus to have Ozturk on the team, who is credited as the high altitude director. Ozturk is a North Face sponsored athlete, so he’s one of the best climbers in the world and he’s also an amazing artist who speaks fluent Nepali. The beautiful time lapses are his. He brought the look of Sherpa up to a very high standard.
DO: There were so many breathtaking shots that were absolutely stunning. Sherpa captured something very cinematic about the region. Clearly, the Himalayas have fascinated you for a long time now. If you could pin it down, is there any one thing that has drawn you to work in that area so often?
JP: It’s hard to describe, because it’s a magical place. Why does anyone go to the mountains I guess? We’re so disconnected from nature and for most of my life, I drive straight from home to the edit suite and then I’ll drive home again to my house. We are literally losing contact with nature. When I go to the mountains and particularly that region in Nepal, I just really feel alive. I feel very centred and it’s a place where I feel really great. Being among people so spiritual has an incredible calming feeling and it’s an escape from the busyness of every day life.
As a young aspiring documentary filmmaker, I discovered that my body just so happened to work well at altitude. This gave me an opportunity to work on these incredible projects. There are better climbers than me and better camera operators than me, but I could do both. I was offered gigs because when opportunities come your way, you should just say yes. It’s amazing when you make a certain choice in your life. You say yes to one project and then it just expands out, one thing leads to another, so it’s important to say yes to whatever comes your way.
DO: What do you think of Hollywood movies like Everest that revolve around mountain climbing?
JP: I know the Sherpas were really devastated about the extent to which they were not recognised in that film, so that bothered me. I think that it’s a very male oriented world. It’s simplistic storytelling, always man against nature. These films can be compelling, but what I felt about Everest was that it was hard to care about the characters. That was problematic for me. I wanted to care about them, but I didn’t.
Some of the second units from Everest were on the mountain and I was popping into their camp all the time. I love those guys; they were really experienced and they knew the Sherpas really well. I’m not interested in climbing movies per se necessarily, but I did love our producer John Smithson’s film Touching The Void, which is why I asked him to produce Sherpa.
DO: Which documentary filmmakers inspire you in your work? Do you have one particular favourite documentary of all time? You briefly mentioned Touching The Void. Would it be that or something else?
JP: I reckon that’s an amazing film. I also love Kevin McDonald’s film One Day In September. I love anything by Errol Morris, I just adore him. I also like films like Man On Wire, (James Marsh) is a great film maker.
DO: Did these filmmakers inspire your work in any way? Perhaps on a technical or even emotional level?
JP: I love Errol Morris’s interviewing style. I never put my own voice in a film if I can help it, so I have a slightly different approach. I think Kevin McDonald has an amazing ability to devise emotional story arcs. He does really well at expressing the male viewpoint. He’s very sensitive and insightful, which I appreciate about him. I also love Alex Gibney. I think he has a great way of taking very complex ideas and making them very simple.
Trying to get the balance right and not being too judgemental was a real aim in Sherpa. I really didn’t want to paint anyone as goodies and baddies in a black and white scenario. The situation is morally complex; if the Sherpas kicked all the foreigners out tomorrow, it will all fall apart. They know that and they need the foreigners to climb the mountain and pay them. People like Russell Brice do treat the Sherpas really well and provide them with an income. As a result of that, they’re better able to educate their children. It’s the flip side of that and seeing how devastated the families are. I didn’t want to be really judgemental and simplistic about the situation. I wanted to show it in all its complexity.
DO: That really shone through. Your impartiality was a real strength of the film. I imagine it would have been very tempting for some filmmakers to choose a side, make someone the underdog, but it wouldn’t have been necessary. The ideas really became clear through the editing.
I have a really fantastic editor that I’m working with at the moment on another project. He really is a master storyteller. He worked with George Miller a lot before. He was really fantastic. I had a really great team around me who applied a lot of rigour to the storytelling. In fact, the wonderful editor of Touching The Void came out and spent a week with us. We thrashed around ideas and she was fantastic. She really added something to Sherpa and took the film to another level.
DO: What’s next for Sherpa? Do you have any more film festival screenings lined up?
JP: As you know, the film is being released theatrically this Friday in the UK. I think it’s the same day as Star Wars which is hilarious. It’s already had a small theatrical run in the States. We are doing a couple more festivals but I’m unable to attend as many now, because it’s so time-consuming. You never schedule for these things, because you don’t know if the film is going to do well.
We have a theatrical release happening in Australia and New Zealand early next year. Sherpa will then be broadcast to 220 countries on the Discovery Channel, who have acquired the television broadcast rights. It’s great, because apparently millions and millions of people will be able to see it, which will have a big impact, I think.
DO: That’s great news. Congratulations! Do you have your sights set on your next project or are you still working on promoting Sherpa?
JP: I’m working on another project at the moment, which has been commissioned by the Australian Chamber Orchestra. They are one of the best Chamber Orchestras in the world. The creative director is an incredible violinist, but also a surfer who’s fascinated by mountains, which is why he wanted to work with me. The project essentially explores the history of our fascination with mountains and why we’re drawn to them.
There’s an amazing bestselling British writer called Robert MacFarlane who wrote a book called Mountains of the Mind, which tries to explain people’s addiction to mountain climbing in a beautiful, poetic way. He’s collaborating with us on this project. I’m also collaborating with the main cinematographer who worked on Sherpa, as well as some other guys who are the best mountain cinematographers in the world. Once we’ve finished working on that material, we’ll go to Japan to explore that further. Then the orchestra need to do the music, so its going to be a long gestation period. It’s a really beautiful project.
SHERPA is in cinemas from 18th December and will broadcast globally on Discovery Channel in 2016 – http://sherpafilm.com/
Many thanks to Jennifer Peedom for taking the time for this interview.