The final product is not actually what Jennifer Preedom and her team intended to portray when they first planned their trip to Base Camp of the highest peak on Earth. Unfortunately it shows. It’s a fractional offence and arguably unavoidable given the circumstances surrounding the shoot buthe lack of narrative clarity is a shame in comparison to the crisp and innovative cinematography.
After an on-mountain fight between a Sherpa and a client in 2013, the world briefly focused on the nature of the relationship between wealthy Western mountaineering tourists and those that grew up around Everest to become the laden, yet smiling Sherpa people that bear the brunt of facilitating their trip. This dynamic is Preedom’s passion.
There is a lot to deal with in this film. The genesis of the piece was to follow Phurba Tashi Sherpa attempting to summit Everest twice in the season of 2014, thus equalling and then passing the astonishing record held at 22. To provide some balance there is Russell Brice, the head of one of the commercial tour companies. He is an accomplished mountaineer and Phung’s boss. Under Phung’s advice, Brice had cancelled a trip in 2012, considering the mountain unsafe. Despite it being a pressurised year to succeed, both gave their blessing to be followed on the 2014 climb.
The camera loves Phung, his family and the reasons Sherpa people consistently risk their lives on Chomolungma year-after-year, are explored. Weaving together these two narratives is commentary from mountaineer journalist Ed Douglas, who provides voiceover style analysis. In this way, he contextualises the perceived slight of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay during 1953 and the infamous Hillary and Hunt ascent of that year which establishes “brand” Sherpa. Archive footage is the backdrop to introduce the 21st Century Sherpa which have access to social media and see the kudos Everest carries in the West – while a paying client makes one summit of the peak in a given year, Sherpas ferret back and forth between each ‘camp’ 20 to 30 times per summit attempt, carrying oxygen, refreshments, ropes and fuel for electricity and cooking – not only making it practical for climbers to be successful, but actually making it ‘comfortable’ with hot tea, coffee and at one point at Base Camp – a flat screen TV.
This framework would have been a more coherent way of understanding the issues involved however events overtake the filmmakers’ plans as an avalanche on the Khumba Icefall – the most dangerous part of the ascent – took the lives of 16 Sherpas in April 2014. Through the strange coincidence of the film crew were on-hand to record it all in great detail and technical diversity. In a chilling opening sequence, a mounted camera provides a first-person view as the beginning of a 14,000 ton ice flow blacks out the screen.
This obviously then took centre stage once the documentary had to be pieced back together, with a new story which saw the Sherpa band together to strike for better pay and conditions and not to climb in respect for the dead.
In the chaos, everything becomes a little muddy from here on in. The politics between the Sherpa and the government is confused. This is not only due to the ineptitude of the governmental response, but the snatches of conversation and interview provide contrasting opinions which are not resolved and summarised. Russell Brice masterminds the search and rescue, yet the subsequent footage shows him lying to his Sherpa crew – presumably this is to protect them, but that’s only supposition. This seems a shame as they are the depiction of heated feelings in the aftermath of a terrible shock. In the confusion, it loses the ‘point of view of the Sherpas’.
SHERPA is aesthetically stunning: the views of Everest are spectacular; the insights into Nepalese village and Sherpa family life are genuine and unobtrusive. Through subtitling and off-screen translators, the viewer receives a truer sense of the people filmed. Phurba’s family speak remarkably openly (as a rule the Nepalese are shy, but seem to sense the unique opportunity to see their side of the Everest challenge being told). We do indeed meet Phurba with his family – as planned – prior to setting out on the trek to base camp. His wife cries as she explains that she does not want him to climb, but that he loves it and will go anyway. He kisses his children goodbye in the hope he will return with the money and opportunity that an expedition provides a Nepalese family – the pay for one season being 10 times that of an average wage in the country. The opening of the film is entirely in Nepalese, with natural surroundings setting the scene of that original film they set out to make.
Where the documentary does follow Sherpa life and shows genuinely candid responses it is glorious. The technical ability and planning behind the pictures we see are also meticulous and pay off astoundingly – some Sherpas were provided with more portable cameras months ahead of time which generate views and access to the mountain that even a highly trained altitude would struggle with. Footage of setting up Base Camp starts to upset the current feeling of a lack of recognition they receive and showed them laughing and joking together. At one point, they draw lots to decide which equipment they will carry to the next camp. It’s a fun ritual which belies the risk involved in taking say, a 15 litre gas canister and multiple sets of ropes. The religious rites to ask permission to climb show the reverence involved in every single step on their sacred mountain – while Westerners see it as an obstacle to conquer.
There was a necessity to document the avalanche and its effect, but that was a different story and despite the unique footage, confused what Sherpas actually thought. The hybrid, which really should be seen in the cinema created individual heroes and villains. That being said, polemicising the issue will undoubtedly spark more discussion on the key points regarding safety, pay and overcrowding on Nepal’s most lucrative natural resource.
SHERPA is in cinemas from 15th December and will broadcast globally on Discovery Channel in 2016. Visit http://sherpafilm.com/ for listings
Review by George Meixner