Sherpa is an Australian documentary film from Jennifer Peedom; it charts the events following a disastrous avalanche on Mount Everest in April 2014 and the impact that this has on the local Nepalese population.
The most interesting aspect about Sherpa is how the film was forced to evolve as events unfolded around the documentary crew. Peedom originally envisioned that the film would follow the 2014 climbing season from the perspective of the hard-working and underpaid Sherpas, following publicised confrontations between the locals and foreigners the previous year.
However, during production, a vicious avalanche struck the infamous Khumbu Icefall, killing 16 Sherpas and grinding the climbing season to a halt. With tragedy unfolding in front of their eyes, the film was reshaped to document the event and the fallout that followed. Anger concerning poor working conditions and insufficient recognition leads the conflict between various parties in the Everest base camp, and Peedom's camera crew were there to capture every moment.
Peedom's film does an excellent job of depicting the harsh working conditions that the native Sherpas are forced to endure on the extreme slopes and ice fields of Mount Everest. Her passion and adoration for the local culture really comes across throughout the film, with particular focus being given to the legacy of Sherpas, the religious significance of 'Chomolungma' and the impact that the tourism driven economy can have on local families.
It's an even-handed examination of both sides of the dispute; the Sherpas are given depth and dimension, with de facto protagonist Purba Tashi caught in the centre of the evolving conflict between his peers and his profession. With 21 ascents, Tashi is just a single ascent away from holding the all-time record; no-one, we're told, is more aware of the dangers of Everest than he is. Some of the films most impactful moments stem from scenes we spent in the close confines of Tashi's family home.
Peedom also spends time with the Western clients who're the source of some of the animosity on the mountain. Most come across as level-headed explorers who're merely disappointed to be shut down by something out of their control, but one or two provide some head-scratching moments; one American climber compares the cancellation of the climbing season out of respect to the fallen Sherpas to 9/11. It's an incredulous statement that really beggars belief. Peedom isn't interested in taking sides; she gives a balanced retelling of the series of events that shows that there are tactless people on both sides that are fuelled by emotion.
Sherpa is an achingly gorgeous film to look at. The cinematography is simply breathtaking. Majestic landscape shots and time-lapses from cinematographers Renan Ozturk, Hugh Miller and Ken Saul capture the imposing yet quiet beauty of Everest in a way that has to be seen to be believed.
The Verdict: 8.5/10
A soulful, insightful and respectful film that finds a delicate balance amongst the emotions and tragedy, Sherpa is an unmissable documentary that is as gorgeous to look at as it is moving.
Sherpa is in cinemas across Australia now