In 2013, the world's media reported on a shocking mountain-high brawl as European climbers fled a mob of angry Sherpas. Director Jennifer Peedom and her team set out to uncover the cause of this altercation, intending to film the 2014 climbing season from the Sherpa's point-of-view. Instead, they captured Everest's greatest tragedy, when a huge block of ice crashed down onto the climbing route...
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★★★★ review by Michael Scott on Letterboxd
Baltasar Kormákur's big screen blockbuster Everest opens in Australia soon. It's a costly production that boasts an expensive cast but still looks to have enough money left over to back them up with a worthy spectacle. I've got nil interest in seeing it. Not after Sherpa.
Watching white men climb the world's highest peak loses its attraction (what little attraction was left after Cliffhanger) knowing the background workings of the bucket-list fulfilment industry that has developed on the mountain and the local people whose backs that industry has been built on.
To be fair, I don't want to undermine the survivilist horror the men and women that inspired that film went through, but It would be hard to take any of the characters seriously having come face to face with the calibre of human Jennifer Peedom's documentary has introduced me to. To be blunt, many of whom should be thinking about crawling through the obstacle course of their own entitlement before they even consider tackling the mountain. It is a cheaper form of personal development.
You've probably gathered by now that Sherpa is a film divided between the haves and the have-a-hell-of-a-lot-more-than-they-know-what-to-do-withs, between those who rely on the mountain climbing industry for their livelihoods and those who rely on them to to set up their camps, to cook their food, serve them meals and, most importantly (and most dangerously) to cart their gear from camp to camp so they can get to the summit in as much comfort and with as little effort as feasible.
Peedom's film began as a celebration of the Sherpa people, a project kickstarted by a 2013 mountain-top standoff that saw 100 of the east Nepalese mountaineers stand up to disrespectful foreign climbers. That flashpoint may have drawn Peedom to the mountain but it also augured the events that would come to form the central battle of her film, a Sherpa-led rally for respect and improved working conditions following a tragic event on the mountain.
At Base Camp, Brit journo, Ed Douglas, gives an exceptionally frank assessment of situation to hand. It's a forthright dialogue that would grate but for its exceptional insight and Douglas' ability to place the Sherpa's demand in an historical context, He convincingly draws a line from Base Camp 2014 back to Edmund Hillary's world renowned ascent fifty years ago and the long-since-faded recognition of his Sherpa companion, Tenzing Norgay. As Douglas puts it, this tour-halting standoff, which threatens the very future of packaged climbs on the mountain, is the culmination of five long decades of struggle on the part of the Sherpa.
That is not a difficult line to swallow. Sherpa is a perfectly contained high altitude economic microcosm - rich white people happily leaning on friendly brown folk, oblivious to their exploitative actions until their rarefied position is challenged. Nobody, it seems, likes an uppity Sherpa. Not when thousands of dollars worth of climbing brags have been purchased.
In the snow-white glare of the situation, the Western climbers don't hold back. Peedom captures their resigned privilege with numbing bemusement. The striking Sherpa, still mourning for their friends and family, are labelled selfish terrorists. One climber in an effort to get the situation diffused (so he can get on with his Sherpa-facilitated climb) even goes so far as to ask: "Who are these people, can't you go talk to their owners?"
That pretty much sums up the film. An undervalued people doing as a matter of routine the thing that others, more valued, pay top dollar for. The economy of this industry needs to be kept afloat, for the tour operators, for the nation of Nepal (the government's response is particularly telling) and nobody wants to admit to the exploitation that underpins the system. Masterfully, Peerdom has, on the slopes of Everest, eloquently encapsulated the economic world at large: Pass the buck. Wash your hands. Plead ignorance. Find some way to keep doing what you've always done.
Do it with thrilling Chomolungma vistas in the background.
Sherpa is must see. It is history on film. Another cinematic step towards a global social tipping point.
★★★★½ review by Andrew C on Letterboxd
"He climbed so that we wouldn't have to."
A really fascinating documentary that shows the value of preparation, research, and sometimes just filming in the right place at the right time. Man, I absolutely loved this.
Director Jennifer Peedom originally set out to report on the huge increase in mountain tourists and adventure seekers on Mount Everest, and instead happened to be on location when the catastrophic avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas occurred in 2014. Thus, she shifted her focus completely and came to make this film, highlighting the complexities of the "industry" of Everest and its impact on the Sherpa people.
"Sherpa" is the ethnicity, that is; not just a term for "Nepalese mountain climber," this is literally the group of people who have been living near these altitudes for centuries. Peedom, through interviews and archival footage, gives a brief history lesson on the mountain, and how the Sherpa people came to be guides after Edmund Hilary and Tenzin Norgay made that first ascent many decades ago.
The Sherpa that we follow in the film is Phurba Tashi, who has already made over 20 ascents, getting more dangerous taking larger groups with less and less experience. However the income is very good, and like other Sherpas he relies on these trips to care for his family. Among these financial challenges is something of a sea change in Sherpa attitudes, no longer complacent as the dutiful servants of old; they want to be recognized and compensated appropriately, like Tenzin Norgay never really was.
And when the tragic avalanche occurs, 16 Sherpas are killed. Only Sherpas, as they were doing the preparatory grunt work on the icefall themselves. The second half of the film, after this tragedy, is amazing, as the director and her crew had to completely shift their filming to frame a new type of story.
There may not have been a better documentary in 2015. An affecting and moving story, even if you've read the articles and seen the television reports. Watching the film, and hearing the reactions of the villagers who lost their sons and husbands, this is a tribute to all who've given their lives with little in return.
★★★★½ review by Chris Hormann on Letterboxd
When you think of the Sherpa (certainly as a New Zealander), you think of smiling faces and the picture of Hillary with Tenzing Norgay after their ascent of Everest. Since then, they have been initmately involved with any expeditions going to the top of the great mountain - but in common with many other cultures, they have slowly but surely found themseves exploited by the West and the god of commerce.
This documentary shows this in sharp relief and with incredible effectiveness. We see both the beauty of the Himalayas but also the ugliness of an increasingly demanding Western tourism market who want to tick climbing the mountain off their "bucket lists" but with often little regard to the sacrifice and risks taken by the Sherpas to help them achieve this. Even seemingly friendly tour operators show their teeth when it comes to carrying on with expeditions in the shadow of great loss of life. The Nepalese government is certainly not blameless in this as they pursue the mighty tourist dollar.
This documentary has the ability to be great agent of change in how we see Everest and how we need to appreciate more than our petty goals to the detriment of a proud and great people.
★★★½ review by Simon Di Berardino on Letterboxd
Sherpa; or the affirmation of the entitlement of Westerners with money.
★★★★ review by Dion Wyn on Letterboxd
The film shows political sensitivity in telling the story from the Sherpa viewpoint. Its great strengths lie in extraordinary cinematography and sound recording under the most chaotic high-altitude conditions a filmmaker can ever experience. The camera works skilfully across the visual pleasures of vast mountain-scapes to angry grief stricken Sherpa faces and frustrated tourist climbers, with a soundtrack of howling wind, crunching ice and hammering stakes that viscerally creates a 'being there' feel. Peedom lets the story tell itself without manipulative editing, and it is highly engaging while being informative about a world that few of us will enter. It is beautifully filmed and teaches much about Sherpa life and their struggle for recognition.
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