There’s a moment mid-way through Jennifer Peedom’s Sherpa (2015) which sees the Buddhist mountain guides offering prayers to Mount Everest in order that they may be granted safe passage to her summit. As the camera pans to the right over this scene of serene reverence, the ‘Mother Goddess of the Earth’ issues forth an avalanche, seemingly in response to their chants; forming a synergy between man and nature which far exceeds the realm of conventional understanding, firing a warning shot to all those who wish to climb.
Filmed predominantly from the Everest Base Camp, Sherpa acknowledges the grandeur of its surroundings with breath-taking, crystalline vistas of the savagely beautiful landscape; however, it reaches new heights compared with recent edge-of-your-seat dramatizations such as Everest (2015) by telling of the men behind the scenes who risk their lives to facilitate the whims of rich a western clientele. Peedom, who draws on over a decade’s experience in the region, targets concerned family members and the vastly experienced, patriarchal expedition leader Russell Brice who fear for men risking their lives to put bread on tables.
Weaving an intimate, even-handed and respectful thread, this is more a detailed examination of workers’ rights than an action epic but remains just as exhilarating. The blend of slow motion imagery and accelerated time lapse photography along with the use of multiple cameras instils Sherpa with an evolving vibrancy, reinforced by a stirring orchestral score which heaps ever more emotion on knife edge proceedings. Moments of terror are interspersed between instances of power-to-the-people contemplation and, at times, all out revolt.
In a preface to the main body of the film which firmly aligns our point of view with the Sherpas, GoPro footage shows one guide struggling to traverse a section of the notoriously dangerous Khumbu Icefall. His breathing laboured, murmuring to himself, the enormous rush of an avalanche consumes the screen. On 18 April 2014, 16 Sherpas died in the worst tragedy ever to occur on Everest. In a quest for justice and fair compensation for the bereaved from the Nepalese government, which hitherto retained the lion’s share of tourist income (clients pay astronomical sums for the privilege), the remaining guides went on strike. Viewed by some as an act of recklessness by a handful of bad apples and by others as a justified move given the inherent life-threatening risk willingly taken, Peedom sits on the fence by justly representing both sides of a complicated moral argument. What is made clear here, though, is the awkward marriage of convenience which exists between the Sherpas and tour companies, locals and westerners, poor natives and rich outsiders.
The interdependency of each body – the Sherpas to be employed, the tour companies for the superior physicality of a people genetically built for life at altitude – and the resentment which arises when demands are not met by groups on either side of the table is the key conflict which Peedom’s doc looks to highlight, if not resolve. The children of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, who reached the peak of Everest in 1953 with Sir Edmund Hillary, appear in talking head interviews throughout. The injustice and lack of due recognition he received in the light of his achievements to which they allude would set a trend of subservience for many that followed in his footsteps. Sherpa tells of a contemporary act of defiance which would undoubtedly bring a characteristic grin to the face of the forefather of modern climbing.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens