At the New Zealand International Film Festival, the spectacular highs and tragic lows of filming on Mt Everest.
Jennifer Peedom’s Sherpa looks at the dramatic 2014 climbing season on Mt Everest. She follows a group of Sherpa guides (in particular Phurba Tashi) as they prepare to guide tourists wanting to reach the summit of the world’s tallest mountain. But tragedy strikes and 16 Sherpa are killed by a 14 million tonne block of ice. Peedom’s documentary shifts from telling individual stories to looking at how the Sherpa collectively respond: it’s a politically pointed and emotionally moving piece of work. Of course, 2015’s earthquake has added an extra level of poignancy to the events. The documentary is helped by its stunning photography, and in particularly that of the impassive main character: Everest itself.
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BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: Why film?
JENNIFER PEEDOM: For me, I love making film and documentary film in particular, because it’s a marriage of story and picture and music. It’s so much more than print. I had a classical background when I was a kid growing up. I love photography. I love travel and travel journalism. It was just a logical combination of bringing images and story and sound to life. For me, it’s the happiest medium to express my view of the world.
BG: With Sherpa you’ve got a pretty extreme version of the three elements.
JP: Yeah, that’s right.
JP: Do they pick me or do I pick them? I don’t know which way it works. I think I am interested in extreme characters and what drives people to these extremes. I was a camera operator for a while and fell into this space where I ended up operating in the Himalayas. There were a bunch of Kiwis, these amazing people like Mark Whetu who has climbed Everest many times and is also a camera operator. Why would someone like that, after nearly dying and losing all of his toes, want to go back? I remember being really curious about that. One thing leads to another. People bring you more films because you’ve done a similar genre. I have done genres outside of this. This is my first adventure film for some time. For me, it’s not an adventure film. It’s a political story. It was always designed to be more of a story about people than an adventure film. Everything that happened, it turned into a political film.
BG: It’s almost like Emile Zola’s novel, Germinal, in which an awful thing that happens prompts people to try to stand up for themselves.
JP: Yeah, it’s a story about people moving towards self-determination and the changing dynamics of a very entrenched relationship.
BG: You’ve been to the Himalayas a number of times. Do you find yourself continually drawn back?
JP: Yeah, I guess so. That’s the truth of it. I’ve drew a line in the sand and I stopped working as a high altitude filmmaker when I had children. In fact after making Solo, because the themes in it are that of parenthood and responsibility, I personally made the decision not to. This time I hired some very experienced high altitude guys because I hadn’t planned to go beyond Camp 2 on Everest. I have been to Camp 4 before. It’s a place I love to be. Close to those mountains in Nepal, I feel really alive. That’s why it’s easy for me not to judge back here and roll my eyes at people wanting to add Everest to their bucket-list. Part of me understands that call to adventure. Another thing in Solo was that everyone’s on a bit of a spectrum, and the world needs people to explore and push boundaries. That’s how our countries were discovered and civilisation spread. There’s a reason why people have it in their DNA. My choice is not to judge them but to understand them better.
BG: Had you noticed the changes in the relationship between Sherpa peoples and Western tourists from the time you first started?
JP: Yes, very much so. Ten, eleven years ago, I did my first piece called The Sherpas’ Burden, which was for a programme in Australia called Dateline on our SBS channel. Way back then, that was when I first met the Sherpa team. They were very shy and it was almost impossible to get them to say anything. When I asked why climbers came here to climb, they dissolved into giggles. And it was very much then a case of smiling happy Sherpa in the background. In the intervening decade, Facebook and the Internet had come into life, and many Sherpa had started to travel internationally to guide on other mountains, as a community. Two decades ago, as someone says in the film, most Sherpas hadn’t been to high school let alone finished it, and now they’ve become much more educated, which is part of the natural process of self-determination. It has happened very visibly over the last decade, and it’s been very interesting to observe that. As we were preparing financing and pitch material, that’s when a fight broke out on Everest and it became even more obvious that now’s the time to make the film. It had literally come to blows. And then it so happened, the timing of this year  coincided with the worst disaster in Everest to that point. In terms of the timing to tell the story it did all come together very well.
BG: For the documentary you were unfortunately in the right place at the right time. Is there a feeling of sadness or being conflicted?
JP: Totally conflicted. There’s some great little behind-the-scenes features that will come out around the release, where we talk to the crew about that and I’m interviewed too. You think, “why am I here?” “Should I be here?” “Should I be filming?” And for me that process was particularly on the day of the avalanche. It was minute-to-minute. “I should stop filming now.” When filming the scene in the Sherpa’s tent the afternoon of the avalanche, and they were all together, I pulled out the camera to ask a couple of guys some questions and thought, “no, I must stop.” I think in situations there is no one right ethical answer, and it changes minute to minute. This was the story we were telling, but I had to think how to do it in a way that was respectful.
BG: In the lead-up, you have these two quite different views of Everest—the Sherpas and the climbers—that plays out in the aftermath. These different ideas of what Everest means and the effect of the avalanche.
JP: I think what you can’t see in the film is how far apart those two worlds are. It’s very hard for the foreigners to take the Sherpas’ view, partly because they’re so protected from them. The Sherpas are not seen in Everest. They haven’t got to know them very well. They are there, but they are kept quite segregated. They’re in a different camp they have different dining tents, they’re down the hill. It really struck me, the foreigners in our team had to go with what Russell [Brice, a Kiwi tour leader] was telling them.
BG: Practically, it would have been a difficult shoot. Ignoring the avalanche, there’s the altitude, the light at that altitude…
JP: Shooting on Everest is incredibly difficult. Because I’ve done it before I knew what it involved and I knew you needed. We were a tiny crew by feature standards, but I had three cinematographers, which is big for a doco. I knew I needed them because just the physicality of that is very difficult and because the intention was to film the ascent. I knew I needed two guys, because one of the guys was likely to go down. Also we went over before the shoot on a couple of trips to train the Sherpa cameramen who shot a lot of wonderful stuff that ended up on the finished film. And it is physically demanding. I had an Australian DOP and he hadn’t been that high before and he found it difficult. I think when the body has been to high altitude before it knows how to respond when it goes back. I carefully handpicked crew so that we would get the best possible coverage. It’s hard to move fast in that environment, it’s very de-motivating.
BG: Everest is such a great character throughout the film. It’s this impassive, uncaring character that’s just there.
JP: I’m glad you feel that it’s a character because we worked hard to try to imbue that sense through the visuals.
BG: Have you had much reaction from the people you filmed. Have they seen the film?
JP: Cinematographer Renan [Oxturk] was going back to Nepal to that same region to do an aerial shoot for another project. We’d just locked it off, so we sent him up there with a copy and he projected it onto a sheet. All the Sherpas came from the surrounding villages, and it was a really positive reaction. They’re very proud of the film. Tenzing Norgay’s son, Norbu, came to the film festival premiere and he said it’s the best film he’s seen on Everest, and he’s extremely proud about how it handled his father’s story. It acknowledges the Sherpas and finally makes the Sherpas the hero of the film. Russell Brice has seen the film, and he thinks it’s really beautiful—it’s tough but fair. We continue to talk about it. He’s been great. Ed Douglas, who’s the British mountaineering writer, he’s seen the film, and really loved it too.
BG: The film has had an extra level of poignancy with what happened this year—the Nepal earthquake, which included 18 deaths on Everest. Have you got a sense how the earthquake affected the Sherpa community?
JP: It devastated it. In actual fact, we’re working on a coda to attach to the end of the film. We’re wrestling with how to handle that. It’s important to acknowledge it, but as time passes, it feels different. None of the Sherpa I knew were killed. It narrowly missed Russell’s camp, his communications tent was destroyed. It was lucky he wasn’t in it at the time. They were all affected, as the season got cancelled again, but none of them were killed or injured. Most of the Sherpas’ houses have thousands and thousands of dollars of damage. Tourism has completely dropped off. For the second season in a row they’ve lost their income. To anyone who asks, I say go back to Nepal. Don’t necessarily climb Everest, but go back to Nepal because they desperately need the tourism dollar and it’s a sad situation as you well know. Some Sherpa have lost everything through mud slides and terrible situations. It has been a very tough couple of years. Because they are so superstitious, it plays into their feeling that the mountain is angry, and you can’t blame them.
“Sherpa” screens in Wellington on July 26th and 27th. See the New Zealand International Film Festival website for additional screening dates nationwide.