Everyone knows that documentaries tell the truth. Well, at least somebody’s version of the truth. On the one hand there are participative documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) starring its interventionist director Michael Moore, and on the other hand there are observational documentaries like Sherpa (2015) where the camera is the chief story-teller. Unlike movies, the doco aims for a higher social purpose and in Sherpa it is to show the world how the real glory of climbing Mount Everest belongs to an exploited ethnic group in the mountains of Nepal. As historical gatekeepers for the Himalayas, their existence has depended on risking their lives so that Westerners and others can experience what it feels like “to conquer Everest”.
Australian filmmaker Jennifer Peedom starts out asking why the traditionally friendly Sherpa guides turned aggressive towards tourists in the 2013 climbing season. The widely reported brawl was triggered by a single swear word directed at a Sherpa, igniting tensions that were simmering since Hillary was Knighted for his 1953 ascent while Sherpa Tenzing received lesser credit. In the middle of filming the brawl story, a massive avalanche claimed 16 Sherpa lives. Suddenly it is about the politics of an ethnic group demanding respect, no longer prepared to risk lives for meagre wages from an industry hosting thousands of tourists each year and charging summit climbers $75,000 – $100,000 for the privilege. The camera becomes a witness to tragedy, then grief that turns to anger and political activism. Audiences become judge in a case involving ethnic discrimination and the commercial exploitation of people who have been used as cheap mules. It’s a complex dilemma with no easy solutions because the same commercial interests have done much to improve the lives of Sherpas.
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 create 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.
Director: Jennifer Peedom
Writer: Jennifer Peedom