It is fair to say that Jennifer Peedom has an agenda. Planning to shoot a Sherpa perspective of the 2014 Everest climbing season, in the wake of high profile brawls between paying Western climbers and Sherpa guides in the previous season, the Australian documentary filmmaker was always intent on a one-sided story. But, as is the case with many indigenous groups around the world, this is a story seldom heard in a Western context and one that desperately needs voicing.
Wisely focusing her narrative thread around the life and work of charismatic Sherpa and very experienced climber Phurba Tashi Sherpa (21 Everest summits under his belt!?) Peedom begins with a fairly standard ‘talking heads’ documentary. Initially contrasting the impoverished life and rich spirituality of the Sherpa against the crass personal-ambition-at-all-costs paradigm of Western adventure tourists this developing thematic thread is side-lined (by virtue of ‘time and place’) by coverage of the tragic 2014 avalanche on the Khumbu Icefall which claimed the lives of 16 Sherpa expedition workers. From here the documentary, and some of its key subjects morph into something more profoundly disturbing.
If Peedom came with a bias then that bias was proved to be completely founded in the aftermath of the events she captures. Prejudices abound and an utter lack of self-awareness that defies belief. I am rarely moved to such an extent by cinema but I came out of Sherpa so angry that my screening buddy and I impotently vented our bewildered anger and disgust all the way home. This unsettled feeling at the treatment of the indigenous Sherpa as less important human beings remains at a background level even today and given the chance I would pass on any opportunity to climb Everest—at least in the way commercial operators currently run things.
Visually the film is both stunning—by virtue of the location, obviously!—and a little stilted as Peedom and crew combine footage from multiple sources shot, in several cases, on inferior equipment without a lot of setup. Peedom along with editor Christian Gazal do an excellent job of taking this cinematic melange and underscoring the awful drama with the murky morality at play, showing people twisting themselves in ethical loops over financial loss and personal disappointment against a background of massive external tragedy. For Phurba Tashi it is a dual journey of communal horror and personal sacrifice of his own ambition and pride (he’s in the midst of attempting his 22nd ascent of Everest which will give him the world record) out of love for his wife and children who (understandably) fear for his life every season that he departs to climb the mountain, which as it happens is also a tribal deity many feel is maligned by casual attempts to ‘conquer’ it through climbing.
Documentaries in remote, beautiful locales abound, as do stories of injustice but rarely do they come together in such a captivating way. Sherpa far and away achieves what I suspect were the initial aims of the filmmakers but also unexpectedly became an important historical document of a tragedy of nature and of the human selfishness the disaster brought to the fore. Sherpa is a film not to miss and one that gives us pause to think about the ways in which we prioritise our own desires over the needs and rights of those who lack the privilege many of us enjoy.
Rating: M Offensive language.