The economic and spiritual significance of Mount Everest is examined in “Sherpa,” a visually magnificent and richly textured documentary centered on the Himalayan guides who’ve led foreigners to the highest place on Earth since 1953. Filmed during the tragic climbing season of 2014 that forever changed how Mount Everest’s lucrative tourist industry operates, this film from experienced Aussie documaker Jennifer Peedom packs an emotional punch to match its awe-inspiring imagery. “Sherpa” is assured of a lengthy fest life and strong sales across all smallscreen platforms, and has claims for niche theatrical exposure. Release details for Down Under and Blighty are to be confirmed.
Completed prior to the devastating Nepal earthquake on April 25, 2015, “Sherpa” began filming as a portrait of the ethnic group whose skills in perilous conditions make the Mount Everest climbing industry possible. The subject matter is a natural for Peedom, whose credits include “Miracle on Everest” (2007) and “The Sherpa’s Burden” (2004). The scope of “Sherpa” broadened dramatically during production when 16 Sherpas were killed on April 18, 2014, at Khumbu Icefall, a treacherous passage near the mountain’s base camp.
Center-frame in the early passages is Phurba Tashi Sherpa, a veteran guide preparing for a world-record 22nd ascent. In elegantly composed sequences filmed in his family home in Khumjung village, the unassuming Phurba shows no interest in landmarks or fame. Financial security is the sole motivation for the extremely risky work he undertakes in the very few weeks each year when conditions are suitable for climbing. The money he earns during this brief window is sufficient to support his family until next climbing season. It’s the same story across Phurba’s community: Everest income equals financial survival.
Enhancing viewers’ understanding of Mount Everest from the Sherpa point of view is testimony from Phurba’s wife, Karma Doma Sherpa. She explains that the mountain they call Chomolungma is regarded as a mother god of Earth, and some believe it’s not proper to walk upon her head. Urging her husband not to climb to the peak yet again, Karma fears he may suffer the same fate as her brother, who died on the mountain in 2013.
The docu rounds out its background information with archival footage of Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa who climbed Everest in 1953 with Edmund Hillary. The point is fairly made here that Norgay has since been consigned very much to the sidelines as the happy local who merely assisted an heroic Westerner to become the first man to reach the summit.
With audiences well informed about Phurba’s personal situation and the Sherpas’ spiritual and financial relationships with Chomolungma/Everest, the docu switches locale to the foot of the mountain, where planning for the 2014 climbing season is in full swing. Alongside Phurba, key interview subjects at the nerve center are the respected mountaineering writer and journalist Ed Douglas and Phurba’s employer, Russell Brice, a tough-but-fair tour operator whose company has taken more people to the summit than any other.
Straight-talking Brice and analytical Douglas provide illuminating commentary on the pros and cons of Everest’s booming economy. Not so long ago, only a small number of aspirants tackled the peak. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for more than 600 people per year to pay up to $75,000 for the experience. Illustrating this point is amazing aerial footage showing hordes of hopeful climbers stuck in a human traffic jam on the mountain. Equally breathtaking is the close-quarters coverage of Sherpas hauling supplies and equipment through extremely dangerous terrain in order to make foreigners’ dreams come true. Preparations for the new season are potently intercut with stories about tensions that flared up between Sherpas and tourists in 2013. The pressure created by the sheer volume of visitors, safety concerns and pay issues resulted in spiteful verbal exchanges and the first-ever physical confrontations between the two parties.
All the film’s fascinating strands come into sharp and powerfully emotional focus when news arrives of the tragedy at Khumbu Icefall. With the invaluable contribution of editor Christian Gazal, Peedom expertly balances intimate human stories with coverage of rescue efforts and political fallout from the disaster. Central to everything is the reaction of Phurba and fellow Sherpas, whose profound grief coupled with newfound confidence in standing up for their rights raises the hitherto-inconceivable prospect of strike action bringing the climbing season to a halt.
Surrounding this compelling narrative core is intelligent analysis of historical and political factors at play. Douglas provides a concise overview of Nepal’s troubled political past and its recent transition from absolute monarchy to multiparty democracy. He credibly suggests these events, combined with increased access to the Internet, have raised Sherpas’ awareness of their pivotal role in the mountain-climbing business and resulted in a push to shake off their image as smiling and uncomplaining servants. With the addition of punchy on-the-spot footage of government officials visiting the disaster zone to answer tough questions about an industry worth more than $350 million annually, the impression is that the Sherpa message is hitting home.
Produced by respected docu veteran John Smithson (2003’s “Touching the Void”) and noted Kiwi-Aussie indie figure Bridget Ikin (2005’s “Look Both Ways”), “Sherpa” boasts first-class visual and technical qualities. Cinematographers Ken Sauls, Hugh Miller and Renan Ozturk (who is also credited as high-altitude director) have beautifully captured the many personalities of Mount Everest/Chomolungma, and the faces of those whose livelihood depend on it and whose spirits are connected to it. Antony Partos’ subtle orchestral score is elegantly woven into Sam Petty’s outstanding sound design package.