Directed by Jennifer Peedom.
Starring Phurba Tashi Sherpa, Ed Douglas, Russell Brice and Karma Doma Sherpa.
Jennifer Peedom set out to film a climbing expedition from the perspective of the Sherpa community, but when tragedy strikes, tensions rise on the face of Mt Everest, changing the focus of the entire film.
As with most things, Hollywood loves to glamorise the danger of mountain climbing, pitting actors like Sylvester Stallone and Chris O’Donnell against the forces of nature in triumphant tales of man’s victory against the elements. However, the reality of these climbing expeditions couldn’t be more different, something that director Jennifer Peedom strives to encapsulate in her devastatingly powerful account of the struggles that the Sherpa community face on Mt Everest.
Sherpa opens with brutal footage of a fatal avalanche from the perspective of a climber engulfed in the ice. As first scenes go, this easily counts among the most harrowing of the year, yet the tone swiftly changes as the darkness gives way to majestic scenes of the mountain in all of its stark brilliance. Sweeping helicopter shots intercut with intimate close ups of the men climbing up Everest are truly awe-inspiring, providing an immediate perspective on exactly how daunting this pursuit truly is.
From the outset, Peedom’s aim was always to provide a voice for the Sherpa community, an ethnic group of people whose vital contribution to mountain climbing has often been overlooked in the annals of history. Early on, archive footage from the 1950’s introduces us to Tenzing Norgay, who along with New Zealander Edmund Hillary became the first person to have reached the summit of Everest. As the most renowned Sherpa, Norgay’s smiling, hard-working attitude became the face of an entire ethnic minority, but unfortunately, most of the credit was given to Hillary and decades of exploitation followed.
Through interviews with Phurba Tashi, a Sherpa guide who’s climbed Everest twenty-one times to date, Peedom explores the fractured divide among members of a community who rely on mountaineering yet are fully aware of its dangers. On the one hand, the Sherpa guides are able to make enough money to feed their families for a year, yet Phurba’s family still oppose his expeditions. Early on, Phurba’s wife reveals that her brother died climbing just a year before and that she’s terrified the same fate could befall her husband.
However, Phurba is determined to raise money for his family and so sets off once again for his twenty-second venture onto the mountain. Peedom’s original focus for the film was to follow Phurba as he broke the record for most visits to the summit, all while highlighting the physical challenges that Sherpas face guiding Westerners up the mountain.
It’s easy to see how this alone could have filled out an entire feature. As the expedition team sets out on their journey, we learn that equipment can’t legally be flown up the mountain, so the Sherpas are the ones who have to carry everything, from the oxygen to the food. The physical struggles the Sherpas endure are enhanced by maladies such as altitude sickness, all in the face of genuine danger from the mountain itself and disproportionate pay.
However, halfway through filming, the unthinkable happened. An avalanche struck the team while they were attempting to pass the perilous Khumbu Icefall, killing 16 Sherpas under 14, 000 tons of ice. Suddenly, earlier remarks about how mountaineering can be a game of Russian Roulette for the indigenous community became all too real and labour disputes regarding the Sherpas unbalanced pay came to the forefront as tensions grew in the wake of the disaster.
As a result of this tragedy, Peedom quickly readjusts the focus of her film, documenting trade meetings and interviewing people from all sides of the conflict. Wisely, Peedom chooses to remain impartial throughout, skillfully balancing an unexpected and increasingly difficult situation with her team. What follows is an incredible account of an overlooked minority finally receiving the credit and respect that they’re due from both the media and the Nepalese government.
Universal are releasing two movies about Mt Everest this year. One is a remarkable technical achievement that unexpectedly transforms into a fascinating document of social change, while the other is a forgettable survival thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Keira Knightley. Do the right thing. Give your money to Sherpa and then click here to donate money for aid in Nepal.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★