In April and May 2015, two high-magnitude earthquakes struck Nepal, shaking the nation and its tourist-supported economy to the core. As part of The Intrepid Foundation’s Namaste Nepal campaign – which aims to raise AUD 1 million to support local projects – we’ve partnered up with the team behind Sherpa, the new documentary from filmmaker Jennifer Peedom. Ahead of the film’s Australian release, Intrepid will be hosting a very special series of screenings around the country in February, with all profits going to The Intrepid Foundation.
Visually stunning and deeply political, Sherpa documents the changing consciousness of a people who have long been the backbone of the increasingly demanding – and sometimes dangerous – Everest climbing industry. So, we’re pretty excited about this new friendship. Here’s a little introduction:
Sherpa has been blowing the wooly socks off the international film circuit and has just been nominated for a prestigious BAFTA Award. We managed to score a moment with the estimable (and very busy) Jennifer Peedom for a chat. It’s fair to say we’ve got a bit of a crush.
Peedom made her first journey to Nepal in 2003. “There’s something so magical about the place. I fell in love with it,” she says. “I kept going back to renew that experience, but also because I got lucky as a young aspiring filmmaker. I started to get offers of work as a camera operator – my body worked well at altitude.”
It was during this time that she first came into contact with the Sherpa community, and met Phurba Tashi, the documentary’s protagonist and one of the world’s most accomplished mountaineers. “I was always more interested in the Sherpas’ point of view. [Over the years] I kept an eye on how the dynamic between foreigners and Sherpas was changing.” In 2013, when a high-altitude brawl broke out between a group of European climbers and Sherpas, Peedom and her team, who were already in the middle of cutting a pitch trailer, decided it was time to act. “It indicated that fault lines were showing, and that we needed to get over there.”
Filming began. But in April 2014, tragedy struck Everest, when an avalanche killed 16 Nepalese guides on their way up the mountain. “Everything changed and then nothing changed,” Peedom says. “We were there to make a film about the disproportionate risks that Sherpas take in taking foreigners to the summit of Everest, exposing the Everest industry for what it is.
“Which is a very different thing to the kind of work Intrepid does. That kind of tourism is more responsible. It’s about wonder and respect and reverence. Everest climbing is about conquering.
“I wanted to show the true story of what goes on. We still got to do that, even though we didn’t make the ascent of Everest. The story turned into a political story, one of a workers’ right movement, of a community working towards self-determination. But the essence behind wanting to make the film stayed the same.”
Since the devastating earthquake of 2015, there has been a significant decline in visitors to Nepal. Now more than ever, Peedom agrees that it is vital for travellers to return.
“They need us to return. Tourism is their biggest industry; it’s crucially important. We need to return there to help them rebuild. And for us, it’s an opportunity to go there with reverence and respect and to learn something about ourselves, to realise the privileged position we live in…We increasingly live in a world where we’re disconnected from nature. And nowhere can it be felt more keenly than in a place like Nepal, where you can really feel the energy. It’s a wonderful place where you can go to take stock of modern existence, and modern existence leeches away so much.”
Peedom has spent a lot of time in the Himalayas. She’s been to Tibet three times, but has spent most time in the Khumbu region of Nepal. “Economic prosperity is paved on the way to Everest, but there is a lot more to Nepal than Everest. The Annapurna circuit is another popular area, but there are a lot of undiscovered beautiful parts of Nepal.”
Peedom clarifies that if someone were thinking of climbing the world’s tallest mountain, it’s not for her to say they shouldn’t. Instead, it’s about doing it with respect and awareness. “Do it with your eyes open, and understand what it is you’re asking other people to do on your behalf. And consider what can be learnt from these cultures that are different from our own, and about our place in the world.”
In a particularly moving and decisive moment of the film, Phurba Tashi finally honours his family’s wishes and retires from climbing. He is now farming potatoes, but Peedom, who stays in touch, says that he is struggling. His mother and father both passed away recently, and, as Sherpa custom dictates for revered community families, their funerals were expensive.
“He’s had two seasons of no income. He has two lodges, but both collapsed and are unable to be used…For the most accomplished high-altitude mountaineer ever, he’s in debt. He’s doing it tough.”
Peedom has been too busy working on Sherpa to return to Nepal since the 2015 earthquake, but says the film’s American cinematographer, Renan Ozturk, screened an almost final cut of the film in Phurba Tashi’s village, and at the Kathmandu Film Festival. “The response from the Sherpa community,” she says, “has just been amazing.”
Unsurprisingly, making Sherpa has been an emotional process. Peedom says she found filming the widows who had lost husbands on Everest particularly difficult. “A lot of people think it’s a film about men, in a man’s world, but for me, the woman characters are the most important.”
But this is a film that has long needed to be made, and the director appears humbled by the experience. “There was a power and humility in being there in a moment of tremendous change…[to witness] the strength and guts and respect [of the Sherpas] for their fallen brothers, cousins and colleagues. To do what they thought was right. They gave up a season’s earnings, and sacrificed a lot. There’s a lesson in that for us. To be witness to that was pretty profound.”
Do yourself a favour, folks, and check out the trailer below. If you see one film this year, this should be it.
On 23 and 24 February 2016, Intrepid will be showing special screenings of Sherpa in cinemas across Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra, Adelaide, Perth and Hobart. Tickets are available here – get in quick!
All funds raised will go to local projects on the ground in Nepal through our non-for-profit, The Intrepid Foundation.
Feature image c/o Australia on Screen