There’s been a renewed interest of late in exploring Mount Everest on film, most notably in Balthasar Kormakur’s big-budget but strangely misguided ‘Everest’. However, the narrative we continue to return to is a decidedly Western one, where foreigners attempt to conquer the highest peak on earth while the indigenous Sherpas beside them are relegated to happy, silent sidekicks. For her highly acclaimed documentary ‘Sherpa’, Jennifer Peedom has turned her camera to those in the background, highlighting the even more jaw-dropping achievements of these often forgotten custodians of this sacred mountain.
‘Sherpa’ captures a decisive moment in the history of Everest, where in April 2014 sixteen Sherpas were killed carrying supplies to a base camp on the mountain by a 14 million tonne block of ice crashing down onto them. The worst tragedy to occur on Everest at that point, it sparked a conflict between the Sherpas, the tour operators and the Nepalese government over the rights of the Sherpas, who scale the mountain with little financial support or security. With the Sherpas striking in protest, the tourism industry built around Everest grinds to a halt, and suddenly the happy, silent sidekicks demand to be recognised rather than ignored.
Visually breathtaking and quietly furious, ‘Sherpa’ is one of those rare documentaries that juggles a number of concerns and ideas with fluidity and immediacy. As a starting point, Peedom gives us a history of the Sherpas, not a job description but an actual race of people, acclimatised and in harmony with the figure of Everest. We follow Phurba Tashi, one of the most experienced Sherpas who lives obsessed with Chomolungma (their traditional name for Everest), much to the fear of his young family. By shifting the focus onto Phurba and his fellow Sherpas, Peedom gives us exactly the lens we need through which to witness the oncoming tragedy. Originally intended to simply be a document of the Sherpas and their relationship with the mountain and Western climbers, the film finds itself horrified witness to the tragedy and the political unrest that ensues, capturing it as it occurs.
Without that immediacy, ‘Sherpa’ wouldn’t be as affecting as it is. We see with our own eyes the avalanche engulf the victims, see the grim and disturbing rescue and retrieval mission, hear the dissent and collapse of the Everest base camp, one that threatens to break into violence at any second. Rather than simply witnessing a disaster in one of the most hostile environments on earth, we witness a people determined not to be erased from the pages of history any longer.
Fate has a lot to do with the success of ‘Sherpa’, Peedom and her team being in the right place at the right time, but her approach to the material must be commended and praised for its honesty, sensitivity and integrity. You find yourself equal parts amazed at these incredible people and what they achieved, and appalled that they have not been acknowledged as they should, her gaze going back all the way to complex story of Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa who was part of the first team to conquer Everest in 1953 and the diminishing of his role in the historical event. The film embraces the meditative and spiritual nature of its subjects, moving with a careful rhythm that highlights the moments of impact. The Westerners are not the antagonists in this film - many of them actively working to support the Sherpas in their bid for recognition - but there are moments of manipulation and "accidental" racism that strike with an acidic sting. It’s a political documentary in the best sense, one that uses the medium to increase awareness of its subject and contribute to the betterment of it, a new lens through which to view history.
We see with our own eyes the avalanche engulf the victims, see the grim and disturbing rescue and retrieval mission, hear the dissent and collapse of the Everest base camp, one that threatens to break into violence at any second.
It’s also a shockingly beautiful film to look at. One of the disappointments I had with Kormakur’s ‘Everest’ was that it failed to capture the scale of the mountain, even more bizarre when it threw 3D into the mix. ‘Sherpa’ suffers no such problems, giving us a view of Chomolungma as both a place of great beauty and great danger. Just as impressive as the aerial footage and the POV shots from the climbs is the ever-present figure of the mountain in the background. Any film that concerns itself with Everest needs to place it as a character within the film, and ‘Sherpa’ does exactly that. Its shadow is cast across the whole film, not just as a physical presence but as a historical one. Everest is a graveyard, and through the story of the Sherpas, Peedom never lets us forget that.
‘Sherpa’ is a breathtaking and darkly magical film, one that opens a door into a part of the history of the iconic mountain Western history has made no effort to properly explore. It puts other recent cinematic explorations of Everest to shame, not just for how accomplished its filmmaking and storytelling is but for the integrity of its intent. Jennifer Peedom has crafted a genuinely beautiful film, affecting and shocking and immense. With Everest continuing to carve out a dark path through history, it calls into question the Western relationship with it and with the indigenous people who live in the shadow and worship of it.