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Sherpa – Documentary Review

9 February, 2016 — by Douglas Clarke-Williams0

sherpa movie poster

“Because it’s there.”

George Mallory’s famous retort to the question of why he would want to climb Everest in the first place, is a phrase which has been repeated into cliche since its alleged utterance in 1923. Sherpa, a new documentary from the producer of Touching the Void, debunks this tautologous remark with considerable aplomb.

Jennifer Peedom’s film documents the straining and eventual collapsing of the tension between the Sherpa guides, Western climbers and company owners, framed in the aftermath of the 2014 avalanche which resulted in the deadliest day in the mountain’s history, and does so with equal sensitivity to the clashing personalities and to the looming, enduring beauty of the mountain itself.

We are shown that it’s money, not love, that drives many of these Sherpas (an ethnic group, incidentally, rather than a term for mountain guides) to traverse the treacherous Khumbu Icefall back and forth dozens of times during the course of an ascent. One of the more quietly effective moments is found within the footage taken by a Sherpa’s helmet camera, when we hear the man quietly, almost compulsively, chanting a prayer which mingles with his ragged breath and the crunch of his step on the ice. It calls back to the same prayer repeated by the wives and children of the local guides – none of whom want them to go, all of whom are no more than a degree of separation from someone who has lost a husband or a father or a brother.

sherpa film still mountain range

A significant amount of praise must go to Renan Ozturk, the cinematographer. A climber himself, he intersperses the necessary documentary shots with images of lanterns floating ethereally in the snow-flecked night and the hands of the guides as they spin the prayer wheels in the centre of town on their way to another trek. This injects a degree of the vaunted mysticism of the climbing experience into the narrative. Perhaps the most arresting shot, however, is of a ragdoll body hanging limp from a helicopter’s rope as it’s carried down to base camp. It throws the reality of the whole endeavour into painfully sharp relief, and acts as a potent representation of the film’s mission as a whole. Behind the inspirational poster mantra of ‘the summit’ lurks a heavy and tortured history of colonial, local, and individual conflict which comes tumbling down on the heads of all involved with an icy inevitability.

Peedom expertly handles the golden rule of documentary filmmaking: let the story tell itself. She allows the cast of characters equal exposure; the piece comes across as neither a liberal guilt-laden bon sauvage depiction of the indigenes, nor as an apologia for the actions of the hard-worked company operators who have to mediate between their employees and those who have paid six figure sums with the expectation of reaching the peak of the world. That’s not to say that people come out looking blameless; on the contrary, one of this piece’s revelations is its exposure of the apparently ingrained neo-colonial attitudes in those who should really know better. Their attitudes betrayed by the very language they use, Peedom shows us Everest Base Camp as a ‘village’ which would be dismissed as shockingly feudal if you put it anywhere else on the planet.

sherpa documentary sherpas

For Peedon, Everest is paradise repurposed, with the Western climbers who are usually the focus of these sorts of productions backgrounded to an age-old story of family and loss. She takes something which most people couldn’t think of as being more straightforward and unambiguous – start at the bottom, climb to the top – and demonstrates how greed and anger have over the decades made Everest itself something far less than what it should be. Aided by mountaineering journalist Ed Douglas, who fills us in on the chunks of Everest history with which we may be slightly less au fait with, and guided by the voice of Phurba Tashi Sherpa whose record-breaking 22nd ascent was going to be the film’s focus until it all came crashing down, Sherpa takes us to the summit of a century of tangled relationships and recriminations with a sure and tender hand on the humanity of the matter. 4/5

Check out the rest of the latest cinema releases in our new film reviews section, including the hard-hitting documentary Cartel Land.


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