Documentaries and feature films about Mount Everest have become a dime a dozen over recent years. They all follow a pretty simplistic formula – a focus on some American or European climber chasing their dream, caught up un some terrifying existential disaster, tragedy and heroism abounding and all helpfully set against perhaps the most stunning backdrop in the world – and they all feel a little bit the same as a result. Jennifer Peedom’s Sherpa (2015) though feels totally different, and adds something new and important to the conversation.
The film begins by laying out the perspective of a Sherpa, both in more societal terms and through an individual examination. From there, the film focuses on an intelligent analysis of the Everest industry, pivoting around the differing reactions to a day of major tragedy in 2014. Perhaps a better term for this western construction would be the Everest industrial complex. There is a form of racism or more accurately colonialism where westerners pay huge sums, sometimes six-figures, to climb the mountain. A mountain where they will traverse the most dangerous parts of once or twice, while the indigenous Sherpas will be required to climb the same area up to 30 times in a season. It also gets to the deep emotional connection that Sherpas have with the mountain, contrasted with the ugly, shallow pursuit of accolades apparent in those from the west. We see a man who has come to love the mountain more than his family, who has summited 21 times. An outlook built on obsession but also a very real, genuine spiritual connection to both the mountain and his continued ascent of it. As befits the location of the story, Sherpa is one of the most visually striking films I’ve seen this year, especially in the first half. Here creativity and excellent shot selection make the imagery both familiar and unique – slow-mo, snowflakes, close-ups, wide shots. There is some handheld, primary source material too, but it’s thankfully not overdone and Peedom selects when to use it, the shots to select and how long to run them for really well.
It is a surprise, a nice one though, that a film such as Sherpa has received such a wide cinema release. Eschewing expectation, ‘disaster-porn’ or putting the interest of western participants second makes the film far more interesting and intellectually stimulating, though less immediately marketable. It is the kind of film that does the festival circuit (which this one has to rave reviews), but that it would be nice to see more of in mainstream cinemas. Of course the shit does eventually hit the fan, and it is presented in a white knuckle terrifying way. This sequence is incredibly composed, the cutting together of radio chatter and footage brings to life the organisational chaos unfolding. But whilst respectfully acknowledging the tragedy, Peedom is more interested in the ramifications that it brings about. Initially there are arguments over who should go in the first chopper to the disaster site. And this divide is reflected again and again in understandably ever-broadening points of contention. Insurance, pay, respect and widespread anger toward inequity and the government’s role in it. It is here that the film’s only real failure is present. I’m not so sure that the complexity of Sherpa vs western dynamic after the avalanche is handled that well. Maybe that’s because it is just so damn complex and Peedom is not interested in giving glib niceties as the solution. But additional clarity around the root cause, specific demands and historical machinations between the two groups may have strengthened this part of the film slightly.
Verdict: Sherpa towers above similar films… like Everest if you will. Unwavering in its focus on the local connection and exploitation raging at the heart of the mountain, this is one of the best documentaries of the year so far. Pint of Kilkenny