Writer/director: Jennifer Peedom.
For all the mountainous visual majesty her lens captures, it is director Jennifer Peedom’s soulful, stirring depiction of the human spirit that allows her feature, Sherpa, to truly soar.
Envisioned as an examination of the tensions that led to a highly publicised clash between European tourists and Sherpa guides in 2013, Peedom contextualises the inequalities suffered by the Sherpa workers with some deftly handled backstory involving the lopsided mistreatment of the most famous Sherpa of all time, Tenzing Norgay, after he guided Sir Edmund Hillary to the peak of Mt Everest in May 1953.
But the Australian director suddenly found her already daunting production in the midst of an event that, at the time, represented the largest singular instance of loss of life in Mt Everest history. On April 18 2014, a 14.5 tonnes sheet of ice dislodged from the wall of the treacherous Khumbu Icefall and a team of Sherpas, transporting camping and trekking equipment for international tourist operators, were crushed; 16 locals died in the disaster, with three bodies never recovered.
In chronicling the events with an as-it-unfolds immediacy, Peedom and her high-altitude co-director Renan Ozrturk afford their audience a first-hand visual account of unfettered human emotion at its most raw. The heartbreak that accompanies images of the deceased being helicoptered to base camp cannot be overstated, nor can Peedom’s deeply respectful depiction of the rescue and recovery efforts and, most importantly, the overwhelming grief that swept the region.
The central conflict remains constant – the global commercial interests invested in the Mt Everest tourism industry versus the relationship the indigenous population has with the mountain – but the stakes soar and the issues deepen in the wake of the tragedy. Certain to divide audience sympathies is trek operator Russell Brice, whose business depends on a trustful working relationship with his carriers but who finds himself facing agitated clients when militant Sherpas, tired of their cultural history and modern needs being disrespected by tourists and local government officials alike, want the climbing season abandoned.
The film’s true ‘star’ is experienced guide Phurba Tashi Sherpa, father of two and husband to a wife whose anxiety grows with every expedition. Having lived for generations in the shadow of his beloved Sagarmatha, Tashi shares a bond with the mountain that only locals can comprehend; it is this affinity with the landscape and its legends that places the softly-spoken Sherpa at the centre of the us-vs-them conflict, however reluctantly.
Peedom has a long history with Nepal and the Himalayan terrain; key production roles on such landmark small-screen achievements as Miracle on Everest (2008) and Everest: Beyond the Limit (2007) allowed her unprecedented access to the local people and their customs. This intimacy and shared understanding of the region imbues Sherpa with an immensely empathetic warmth. The access afforded her camera – flashpoint instances at the height of negotiations; achingly sweet moments inside Phurba Tashi’s family home – is a testament to a filmmaker of unquestionable integrity in the eyes of her subjects and whose subsequent vision is instinctive and heartfelt.