Sherpa – Dizzying Heights

Premiering over the weekend, Australian documentary, Sherpa, is the only documentary vying for the Sydney Film Prize at the Sydney Film Festival.

“I watched the Sherpas on many a cutting room floor for Everest films… so we set out to follow an Everest expedition from a Sherpa’s point of view and we could never predict what would happen on the mountain,” documentary director Jennifer Peedom introduced Sherpa to a two-thousand strong crowd attending the world premiere at the Sydney Film Festival.

Filmed entirely at Everest base camp and surrounds, the documentary depicts the life of the ethnic Sherpas and their long-running role in helping western travellers scale the mountain. Following both their lives and those of the more transitory visitors, Sherpa diverges to capture the tragic impact of the worst-ever disaster to hit the mountain. In April of last year, a 14,000 tonne block of ice fell from the mountain, resulting in the deaths of sixteen men, among them, many Sherpas who have died climbing Everest.

“For me,” said Peedom, “of course everything changed when the avalanche happened but also nothing changed because we were there to make a film about the Sherpas and how they were treated, so everything changed and nothing changed.”

The resulting conflict between the Sherpas, the Nepalese government and the many expeditioners who had paid thousands to travel to Everest drives much of the documentary’s tension as the Sherpas demand more rights and better treatment. The film depicts one particular incident where a tourist abuses a Sherpa, in spite of the risks taken on by members of the isolated community.

Sherpa brings to the forefront little-known realities about an ethnic community whose name has become synonymous with lugging baggage, a friendly smile, and is in the view of many community members, taken for granted. The film briefly evaluates the historic image of the Sherpa, focusing on the legacy left by Tenzing Norgay who scaled Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary, interviewing, among others, his children.

At once an engaging exploration of their traditions and the adventurous and persistent spirit of the climbers who make the trek out to Everest, Sherpa is most interesting when documenting the dynamics between these two groups. The filmmakers are granted access to intimate discussions and tense meetings on the mountain involving the Sherpa community’s leaders and the many hoping to reach Everest’s peak.

From a technical perspective, the documentary is notable for production having taken place in unusually harsh conditions. Despite both the low temperature and thin air supply; the crew ultimately accomplished the massive undertaking and compiled 400 hours of footage. One producer noted the filmmaker’s task as “having to think on your feet at that altitude when you’re struggling to get out of your tent, let alone lugging around camera equipment.”

The resulting documentary features breathtaking footage of Everest and surrounds, the snowy landscape peppered by eager climbers, often earnest to share their views, contributing to a very diverse and thought-filled documentary.

The change of tack in the film following the tragedy is very obvious in the finished product, the filmmakers initially planning to focus on a record-breaking climb by one particular local. The choice to divert the focus of the film led to some of its more thought-provoking and evocative moments, proving a unique insight into the challenges facing the Sherpa community.

The fourth entry in the official Sydney Film Festival competition, Sherpa is a welcome, empathetic and accomplished documentary.

Sherpa will next screen on Tuesday, June 9 at the State Theatre as part of the Sydney Film Festival.

On FilmInk

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