Stunning yet also shocking, this gripping documentary tells the story of the Sherpa revolt at the foot of the highest mountain in the world.
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We sat down with award-winning documentary filmmaker Jennifer Peedom to chat about her first feature-length film, and the events she witnessed on Everest after the 2014 avalanche, which claimed the lives of 16 Sherpas and led to a stand-off that radically changed the commercial climbing industry.
Q. How did the idea for this documentary come about?
As an aspiring documentary filmmaker in my 20s I ended up trekking in Nepal and had friends who worked as camera operators on the mountain. I discovered by coincidence that my body worked well at altitude and I started getting jobs as a camera operator on different Everest and Himalayan expeditions. I worked there on and off on different jobs for over a decade. I stopped climbing when I decided to have kids.
I’ve always been surprised by the extent to which the Sherpas got left on the cutting room floor of other Everest documentaries and movies. I always felt there was a story there and it was an idea that was bubbling away for a really long time.
This BAFTA nominated director captures gripping scenes of people in extreme circumstances
Having observed the changing dynamic between foreigners and Sherpas I thought it was the right time to make the film. It felt like the dynamic had shifted significantly. The Sherpas were no longer willing to stand in the background without the recognition they deserved.
They were getting upset about the fact they were having to carry a disproportionate share of the load and the risk of taking foreigners to the summit of Everest and back.
I wanted to show the Sherpas point of view on an Everest expedition to reveal what really goes on.
Q. Were you on set for the duration of filming?
We filmed all the way along starting from Kathmandu. Getting to Everest base camp is part of the story in many ways and because the Sherpa community was a major part of the film we wanted to spend time going through the villages and communities where they lived.
Phurba Tashi, the main character, lives in a village called Khumjung and we spent five days there doing a lot of interviews and meeting his family.
I'd been in base camp for four or five nights when the avalanche happened, so we hadn't been there for long and obviously it was devastating and shocking and we had to rally ourselves to keep going because this was now the story we were here to tell.
The documentary shows the breathtaking landscape of Nepal
Q. Obviously the avalanche did change your story. Was the finished documentary different to what you'd originally planned?
I think when the avalanche happened it did change everything but it also changed nothing. When you set out to make a documentary you don't know how things are going to play.
Obviously, what the avalanche meant is we no longer had an ascent to Everest, which was going to be the spine of the film. Instead we had a political story. We had an industrial dispute, and it changed things. As a documentary filmmaker you just try to roll with the story as it unfolds.
Q. How did your crew deal with the increasing tensions between Sherpas and foreign climbers?
I know that some of the crew had been exposed to the culture and the mountain less than others, and they found it really shocking and scary at times. Those of us that had been there before were less concerned and it was just about getting on with the job.
It was emotional because you're dealing with people who are suddenly thrown into a traumatic situation. You have to take a lot of that into consideration while dealing with your own emotions.
Some of us had family members extremely concerned who wanted us to come home. It was clear to me what we had to do, and it felt like a responsibility now that we needed to document the worst disaster in the history of Everest from the Sherpa’s point of view, because it only affected Sherpas, it didn't affect any climbers, except for the fact their expedition ultimately ended up getting cancelled.
SHERPA reveals the truth and dangers behind an Everest expedition
Q. Was the Sherpa revolt inevitable? Or were you surprised by what occurred?
No, I wasn't surprised. Having observed the situation and having seen the site the previous year – and seeing the footage of the fight which is in the film – it felt to me that things were at a tipping point.
I remember saying to my producer at one point, 'I just feel like something's going to blow'. Foreign climbers and Sherpa’s had arrived at that place in the relationship where things needed to shift and the avalanche was the catalyst.
But, you know, it may have been something else if the avalanche hadn't been the catalyst. It felt to me that tension had reached a tipping point. When people are educated it changes the dynamic and the Sherpa people now are highly educated, whereas two decades ago they weren't.
Jen Peedom with Pem Pem Tshering, the daughter of famous mountaineer
They are a community that's undergone tremendous change. Technology allows them to access information, and they see on Facebook that when these foreign climbers get off their expeditions, despite being very grateful at the time, fail to acknowledge their assistance.
They do the public speaking tours and write books, but ‘forget’ to mention the fact that somebody saved their lives because it diminishes the achievement.
Q. What was it like living at the foot of the mountain?
It's not fun, and it's not the kind of gig you get excited about! It's hard work, and the effect of altitude is such that you pretty much feel sub par all the time.
In my opinion you're doing well if you're feeling 80%. You endlessly have headaches because your heart rate is going a lot faster. You lose your appetite and that's just at base camp.
It gets worse the higher up you go. There are a whole lot of practical considerations and I think that's another reason I needed to have a really experienced team – people who have worked in that environment before because for the uninitiated it is really hard. I had a couple of crew members who hadn't been to Everest base-camp before and I did try and prepare them.
Q. What did you learn from the experience of making SHERPA?
I learned a lot about filmmaking and responding to feedback. It was my first feature documentary and I learned about the beauty and the difficulty of collaboration.
I had some amazing collaborators, including an incredible editor who taught me a lot about being open to feedback and audience response.
We did numerous feedback sessions were you're essentially inviting criticism. That can be really hard when you're emotionally attached to the material, but ultimately if you understand what the audience is getting out of your film – and what they're not getting – it can really help you elevate the film to another level.
Jen Peedom during the filming of SHERPA
I also learned about human resilience. Observing the Sherpas was a hugely emotional experience. Seeing their humility and what they were to prepared to sacrifice to stand up for what they felt was right was really inspiring. A season on the mountain is the most money they earn all year and they don't have many other sources of income.
Q. Do you think the revolt was successful in achieving improved conditions and wages for Sherpas?
Yes, absolutely. By cancelling the season they forced the government to change things for the better. These changed included increased compensation to the avalanche victims’ family from $400 to $5000 and increased the insurance the Sherpas get if something happens. A lot more regulation is going to come to the mountain as a result of what happened.
By protesting and by shutting down the season they drew a lot of publicity to the issue, and the government were really forced to change. There's still a lot that needs changing, but what the events showed is that Sherpa’s can't be taken for granted anymore. I think that was the biggest thing of all.
The Sherpa mountaineers as the true heroes of Everest
Q. Despite all the improvement, Sherpas still need to cross the deadly ice fall. Isn't there another way?
Russell Brice has been leading expeditions for decades and he is seriously lobbying the government to allow loads to be flung over the icefalls by helicopters. There's resistance to that from many parties, including environmentalists and climbing ethics people who believe you haven't truly climbed the mountain if you've had your equipment carried up in that way.
Obviously in my book whatever improves safety for the Sherpa’s should be seriously considered. They are working towards that and it'll be interesting to see what happens this season because last year the season was cancelled again after the terrible Nepal earthquake in 2015.
Climbing Everest brings with it many dangers
Q. Were you tempted to go back or is your Everest chapter closed?
I'm not tempted! I told the story I wanted to tell and I don't have other Everest climbing documentaries in my mind.
(Images supplied by Transmission Films)
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