Rarely are documentaries as powerfully polemic and jaw-gapingly spectacular as Sherpa, a riveting account of last year’s climbing season on Everest, its worst ever, in which 16 Sherpas died in one day. After co-directing her last feature, Solo, with The Rover‘s David Michod, director Jennifer Peedom goes at it alone here and demonstrates a formidably sure hand. Produced by John Smithson, who also made Touching the Void, Sherpa seems destined to enjoy the same boffo international success. Releasing the film stateside, Universal will likely hold its release until after the studio’s upcoming beard-convention Everest, for fear that this remarkable documentary will make its fictional twin look hopelessly feeble by comparison.
A veteran of altitude filmmaking (Everest: Beyond the Limit), Peedom set out to make a film from the Sherpa point of view, specifically that of Phurba Tashi Sherpa, who holds the equal record for most ascents (21). Phurba Tashi’s attempt to climb the mountain he calls Chomolungma for a record-busting 22nd time was to have been the film’s main narrative until an undeniable one intervened. On April 18 of last year, a block of ice crashed down into the Khumbu Icefall, the most dangerous section of the Everest route. Sherpas cross it far more than foreign climbers (“clients”) in order to ferry supplies from Base to camps higher up, and make a pittance for each crossing. On the morning of April 18, 16 Sherpas died on the Icefall — more in one day than had ever been killed in an entire year— and Peedom’s crew was at Base Camp to capture the ensuing chaos.
Running two altitude cinematographers (Renan Ozturk and Ken Sauls), a base camp DP (Hugh Miller), assorted camera phones and GoPros, plus some stunning helicopter photography, Sherpa manages to look remarkably of a piece. Peedom, in concert with editor Christian Gazal (The Little Death), has cleverly structured the film by beginning at the moment of crisis and then doubling back. As prologue, we’re treated to surreal GoPro footage from a climber’s helmet. All we can see is the ladder he’s clambering up when there’s a rumble and a wall of snow crests the ridge above and comes thundering down toward the camera. It’s so startling you can’t blame Peedom for re-playing the same sequence later. Just whose point of view we’re occupying, or what happened to them, is never revealed.
The film then winds back to 12 days earlier to the village of Khumjung, where Phurba Tashi is bidding farewell to his family before the season begins. The brother of Phurba Tashi’s wife died on Everest the year before; he went because he needed the money, she tells us. Needless to say, our apprehension is palpable. Gliding shots of the mountain in all its terrifying awesomeness are aided immeasurably by Sam Petty’s sound design and the score by Antony Partos, whose grandly ominous sound will be familiar to adherents of Animal Kingdom and is a perfect fit here.
Peedom seamlessly weaves together unfolding events and a precis of the historical relationship between westerners and Sherpas, with commentary from mountaineering writer Ed Douglas as well as Tenzing Norgay’s sons. Norgay received a second-class medal from the Crown while Edmund Hillary was knighted. That disparity, combined with the improved education and social media savvy of young Sherpa men — increasingly aware that the foreign press routinely ignores their achievements — makes for some fraught encounters. In 2013, a fight broke out between Sherpas and foreign climbers. Peedom includes footage of the confrontation, in which a white climber who swore at a group of Sherpas is struck and kicked as he makes a panicked apology.
All these resentments come into focus on April 18, and Peedom spends the latter half of the film teasing out the disaster’s implications. The most interesting character to emerge is Russell Brice, the owner-operator of one of the biggest commercial climbing businesses on the mountain. The Sherpas stage a private summit — which Peedom’s two Sherpa operators capture on their cameras, having us quite literally adopt their point of view — in which they decide to call off the season. Brice finds himself between a rock and a hard place: between his clients (many of whom are returning after an aborted attempt in 2012) and the Sherpas, on whose labor he relies. His solution is, in a word, creative. As for Phurba Tashi, he doesn’t get the record. Like the film itself, his story ends at a place completely unforeseen — but quietly hopeful.
Production Companies: Felix Media, Arrow Media, Universal Pictures, Screen Australia
Director: Jennifer Peedom
Producers: Bridget Ikin, John Smithson
Executive Producers: John Maynard, David Griffin, David Gross,
Directors of Photography: Renan Ozturk, Ken Sauls, Hugh Miller
Sound Recordist: Nick Emond
Editor: Christian Gazal
Sound Designer: Sam Petty
Composer: Antony Partos
No rating, 96 minutes