Sunday, 7 October 2018

I've Just Seen: Sherpa (2015)

 Director: Jennifer Peedom

After a fight broke out between Sherpas and a European climber during the 2013 climbing season at Everest, Peedom and crew went to Nepal to observe the 2014 season, focusing on the experience of the Sherpas. As it happened, she was there to witness on camera an avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas, which led to an unprecedented response from the other Sherpas who refused to climb that year, shutting down the season.

The documentary provides a sympathetic insight into the lives of the local Sherpa people, focusing in particular on Phurba Tashi, who has climbed Everest 21 times. At the film's opening he is hoping to make it 22, a record, much against the wishes of his family, who fear for his life each time he goes away. Peedom also follows mountaineer Russell Brice, who runs one of the company providing Everest climbs. We learn that Sherpas are employed to not only accompany visitors on climbs, but to make many trips in order to set up several camps up the mountain, meaning they have to navigate the treacherous area, the Khumbu Icefall, which is climbed at night because during the day the ice melts and moves. It is here that the avalanche occurs early one morning.

The catastrophic event prompts union-style behaviour from the Sherpas, who don't want to climb, and are demanding the government give them better wages, protections and compensation for the dead workers' families. The Nepalese government makes a lot of money from foreign tourists climbing Everest, and the Sherpas see little of it. Brice is sympathetic to the Sherpas, but also wants to push ahead with the climb.

Peedom's film raises difficult questions about the employment of Sherpas as assistant climbers for Western and wealthy visitors, questions that certainly deserve consideration. While the Sherpas do get paid for their work, it is such a small percentage of the huge amount of revenue the government receives; yet they do the most dangerous work. And, it is to make life easier for mostly white, wealthy tourists. It does feel like exploitation, and the way Brice and others say "It's a tragedy, but we have to move on" feels callous considering the dangers they are asking these people to experience.

Most people think of Sherpas as smiling, happy and willing to assist, an image created by the most famous Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. But as his children note in Peedom's film, Norgay came to resent the slights and assumptions made by Western media about him and his people. This film certainly challenges that image, painting a portrait of a people fighting to be acknowledged and appreciated.

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