“I was just amazed at the extent to which the Sherpas do everything and the amount to which that is edited all out of so many Everest films,” said Jennifer Peedom, director of the terrific climbing documentary Sherpa. Although there have been numerous films about climbing Everest — from Leanne Pooley’s 2011 documentary retelling of Edmund Hillary’s ascent, Beyond the Edge, to Baltasar Kormákur’s recent fictional thriller Everest — they tend to be told from the perspective of the foreigners who have travelled to Nepal to climb the world’s tallest mountain. Yet all of these trailblazers required the help of Sherpas to get supplies up the mountains. “No-one had ever told the Sherpas’ side of the story before,” Peedom noted.
Peedom has watched first-hand as the Sherpas’ stories got left on the cutting room floor. In the last ten years, she’s shot three other films on Everest: Miracle on Everest, the Discovery Channel’s six-part series Everest: Beyond Limits, and a 2004 short film for SBS called The Sherpas’ Burden. “I realized that my body worked quite well at altitude,” said Peedom, “so I started to get offered these other jobs.” For each of these films, she climbed with the same team of Sherpas, whom she came to know and respect on a personal level. Over the years, they stayed in touch. “The reason I had the access [to the Sherpas] was that decade of that relationship,” Peedom explained. Peedom even named her daughter after Phurba Tashi Sherpa, the film’s main subject.
The film follows Phurba Tashi, the Sherpa climbing team leader who works for New Zealander expedition leader Russell Brice, both of whom Peedom knew before production began. “I heard about Russell canceling the expedition in 2012 because the Sherpas – he was concerned for the Sherpas’ safety. I thought, ‘Okay, maybe now is the time to make that film.’ And by the time we got around to making it, it was just that other big fight had happened between the foreigners and the Sherpas, and it was just definitely the right time to tell that story.”
[quote type = center]No-one had ever told the Sherpas’ side of the story before.[/quote]
Events would prove Peedom correct. In April 2014, after Peedom’s team had spent only a week at base camp, an unexpected avalanche killed 16 Sherpas. The remaining Sherpas began to organize and decided to cancel the season both out of respect for their lost cohort and as a protest against poor, unsafe working conditions on Everest. The foreign tourists reacted less gracefully to the chaos, often saying horrifying and revealingly colonialist things about the Sherpas’ refusal to climb. Sherpa documents this critical moment when the Sherpas finally began to demand their rights at the expense of disrupting the climbing season — and their own income that year.
Peedom had to figure out how to capture this unfolding drama on the fly. Sherpa was filmed by three cinematographers — Renan Ozturk who starred in and co-shot Meru, Hugh Miller who captured the action at base camp, and Ken Sauls — as well as Peedom and a Sherpa cameraman, none of whom were in the same location. When the Sherpas began to organize, Peedom sent her Sherpa cameraman to film a private Sherpa meeting with an iPhone, while Peedom herself captured the meetings that occurred between the foreigners and their guides.
To keep the team on the same page, Peedom would “endlessly talk about the story, what it is that we’re trying to say, and what we’re trying to capture, such that when they find themselves without me, with no director, they instinctively know what it is they need to do. It was just about imbuing them deeply with a sense of ‘Okay, this has changed, how has it affected our story? Here’s what I’m thinking.’ ” For example, Ozturk, who was responsible for shooting Brice’s clients as they acclimatized to the high altitude at base camp, “was able to shoot and cover those scenes without a director, because he knew it was important how the clients were responding to the news of the cancellation, because there’s this tension between the foreigners and the Sherpas.”
Peedom recalls capturing the foreigners’ reactions on film: “Some of the exact words that came out of some of those mouths I found shocking. But I always knew, having been on a couple of Everest expeditions before, that foreigners — and I don’t say this in a judgmental way – you’re in a bubble of this mission to climb this mountain. You’ve paid a lot of money. You’ve taken time off work. You’re away from your family. When things get in the way of that, it can be very frustrating. Different people, as you saw in the film, deal with that differently. I think all of the foreigners found it confronting, and a difficult situation to be in, and mixed with sadness and disappointment.”
Making Sherpa was important to Peedom because, she explained, “I’d been on these trips, and I’d seen the guys that had climbed Everest. I’d watched them behaving badly on summit day, and needing to be rescued, and all this stuff. Then, they get down there and forget all about that really quickly. They go and write their books and do their public speaking tours. They forget all about who it was that helped them. They don’t even bother to find out about those people and their families. The Sherpas are risking their lives for these guys, and I just found that it stuck in my craw every time.”
The film opens by introducing us to the Sherpa culture, which will be eye-opening even for climbing doc aficionados. Although many Sherpas now depend on the Everest tourism industry for their livelihoods, the mountain holds a special place in their religion. One of Peedom’s goals for the film was to allow her audience “to see that world in a different way, to try and appreciate the beauty and spirituality and what it means to [the Sherpas] on a whole other level than just a place of economics, a place to earn an income. And that meant meeting their wives and their children and their families, and really just taking us deeply into their world in not a superficial way, as much as you can.”
Peedom elaborated, “The very beginning – it’s like a time lapse. It was about setting the scene and creating a mood. There’s three or four shots, and then we go into the praying and the mantras in the night. I love that scene, I find it very moody and it was about throwing you straight in to create atmosphere and I think it’s about starting wide and then going in quite quickly into the macro details of smoke and praying and throwing rice and these rituals the Sherpas go through when they have to do this terrifying job — which they have to do thirty times.”
[quote type = center]That world has a very different pace from the world of the foreigner who comes charging in and wants to climb the mountain and then jumps on a chopper. [/quote]
“That world has a very different pace from the world of the foreigner who comes charging in and wants to climb the mountain and then jumps on a chopper,” noted Peedom. One way that Peedom evoked this pace of life was to literally slow down some of the images in the film by using slow motion footage. “It was always the intention to slow things down and see the world in a different way to what other Everest films have done,” explained Peedom. “That was very deliberate. It was about capturing that world in a different way and looking at the details of it, the significant details of the Sherpas — the red and the spinning prayer wheels, those details that make up that richly-textured Sherpa world.” She continued, “it was about creating poetry within those shots.”
Ozturk shot most of the slow-motion scenes using a special “gyro-stabilized” device made by Movi Free Fly Systems that allows him to film a steady image while running. “Because you can’t take dollies and traps [on a mountain], we used this Movi a lot. It gives you the ability to track with people and create really amazing production values,” said Peedom.
“That shot where the twins are running out of the house? [Ozturk] was sprinting, absolutely sprinting alongside of them and holding the camera in one hand, and [the Movi] keeps the shot stable. That’s how we did all the aerials. The yak hooves running in slow motion – that’s all on this Movi.” Ozturk “lived in Nepal and speaks fluent Nepali. So he really deeply understood that world and cared about it deeply. I think he put extra effort into really making art out of those shots, and the film is really lifted because of that,” explained Peedom.
[quote type = center]We wanted really high production values, as well. We wanted this to feel like a movie.[/quote]
“We wanted really high production values, as well. We wanted this to feel like a movie.” This focus on production values extended to the sound design by Sam Petty. Petty decided to actually go to Everest to record sounds on the ground. Peedom elaborated, “Sam made the effort to come all the way to base camp. He did a lot of work to understand what it needed to sound like and that paid off in the sound design and mix. It’s a very well-researched sound palette. He went off into the ice, and recorded the ice, and the sounds hitting the ice.”
That attention to detail, especially in the sound, really pays off: the film is more transporting than any other Everest film I’ve seen. And it finally gives the Sherpas the due they deserve.
Sherpa had its Canadian Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, where this interview took place.