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Sherpa Review [LFF 2015]: “Leaves you breathless…”

by Sacha Hall

BFI-FESTIVAL

Sherpa review: An extraordinary and soulful documentary…

Sherpa review

Sherpa review

Sometimes a piece of cinematic magic will come along that will just leave you breathless and desperate to run out of the theatre so that you can share it with everyone you know. Well Londoners – this film is it – director Jennifer Peedom’s impassioned documentary Sherpa is a film you don’t want to miss during the Festival.

Initially envisioned as an exploration of the deteriorating relationship between Sherpas and foreign climbers from the Sherpas perspective – particularly after the highly publicised 2013 Base Camp 1 brawl between European climbers and Sherpas – Sherpa quickly becomes a real-time chronicle of the worst loss of human life on Mt Everest in a single day.

Beginning with a series of majestic perspectives and time-lapse shots of the mother mountain, high-altitude cinematographers Renan Ozturk, Hugh Miller and Ken Saul – globally renown mountaineers in their own right – manage to capture the formidable, yet poetic beauty of Everest’s peak as jet stream winds billow across it’s dangerous edges. It’s a wondrous sight, juxtaposed by crunching crampons and ice shifts that remind you of Everest’s dangerously fragile environment.

So too does Peedom’s thoughtful and oft times, entertaining introduction to Himalayan Experience’s Sirdar Phurba Tashi Sherpa and his family. The current world record holder for the most total ascents of peaks above 8,000, and joint record holder for the most ascents (21) of Mt Everest, Phurba and his family are all too aware of Everest’s rising exigency both on and off the peak. ‘My brother died on Everest last yearPhurba’s wife Karma Dopa Sherpa shares as she fights back tears onscreen ‘he went because he needed the money’.

Phurba understands his wife’s concerns and knows culturally that it is wrong to climb the mountain they call Chomolungma but he also enjoys what he does. The income generated by the most dangerous job in the word not only financially benefits Sherpas families but also, their entire community for the whole year. Humorously, Phurba’s mother fails to agree with her son stating ‘if he was a famous Monk, at least he would get blessings. But the fame he gets from the mountain is useless’.

Writer and journalist Ed Douglas shares this opinion as he presents throughout the film, a clear picture of the growing divide between the Sherpas cultural integrity and intrusive western commercialisation that one can’t help but be appalled by. So too is the disproportionate contributions and risks Sherpas shoulder compared to their clients. Whilst wealthy westerners pay up to $75,000 to conquer their ultimate bucket list challenge, Sherpas earn a meager $5,000 to risk their lives up to 30 times per season for their clients, are rarely acknowledged or thanked publically for their contribution to the climbers ascent, nor often respected for their cultural beliefs.

Early in the film, as Sherpas set up Everest base camp from scratch in anticipation of their western clients, Peedom gives audiences subtle glimpses of outrageous and shameful western excess and expectation: flat screen TV’s, portable showers, bar areas, and an equipped library. There’s a scene following the tent village preparations where two Sherpas are offering coffee to clients as they cheerily wish them good morning at their tent. After serving the first client who returns the Sherpas greetings and thanks them for the coffee, the following client responds by asking for sugar and no milk as if they are at their local Costa rather than over 5,000 m above sea level. It’s truly a head shaking moment.

So too is the client meeting held between Himalayan veteran Russell Brice of Himalayan Experience and his commercial expedition group following the avalanche. As one of the last expedition groups to cancel their summit bids, not all of Brice’s clients were happy. One American climber, Jeff Brown, suggests Brice seek out ‘the owners’ of the unruly Sherpas and ‘have them removed from the mountain‘ and later compares the cancellation of the season due to the Sherpas respect for their lost friends, their families and the mountain to ‘being held captive by base camp terrorists’ because ‘You know, we in the States know what that is – that’s 9/11’. Boy did that incredulous statement make the audience laugh!

At certain points in the film, it’s hard to find sympathy for the expedition operators and climbers bemoaning the loss of their ascent attempt and revenue as Sherpas mourn the 16 Sherpas who died but Peedom manages to find a respectful balance between the parties during and following the tragedy on screen. You can feel the raw emotions of expedition operators and their crews, medical staff, Sherpas and concerned climbers as they traverse from casualty and body recovery to confusion and frustration following the tragedy and finally, the Sherpas evaluation of their role on Everest and the increasing dangers on the mountain due to climate change.

Whilst Sherpa documents a horrific tragedy in real-time, it also acts as a dramatic backdrop for an industrial dispute that’s been simmering under the surface for a long time.  ‘Tenzing gave the name Sherpa a currency that will never be exhausted and they are now finally beginning to take advantage of that’ Douglas states.

I couldn’t agree more.

Sherpa is an extraordinary and soulful documentary, where there’s death in beauty and beauty in death. As Tenzing Norgay said ‘you don’t conquer these mountains, you know; you just crawl up, as a child crawling onto your mothers lap’.

Sherpa review by Sacha Hall, June 2015.

Sherpa screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 11, 13, and 18 October 2015.

 

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