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‘Sherpa’ – Trouble on Everest is absorbing watch and highlights disparities…

‘Sherpa’ – Trouble on Everest is absorbing watch and highlights disparities…

February 8 2016

It’s won a clutch of awards and is regarded as the best ever film ever made about Sherpas, we were at a recent screening…

HIGH and majestic – it’s inspired awe and wonder from the first time man ever set eyes on it.

Known locally as Chomolungma, the beauty and almost impenetrable nature of Mount Everest remains one of the great challenges for climber and intrepid adventurer alike.

A film that was released last year and featured at the London Film Festival in 2015, winning an award for best documentary, superbly highlights the plight of probably the most important set of people – who make scaling Mount Everest possible, for all and any of us who so desire.

Called “Sherpa” it goes to the very heart of the experience as it is for indigenous folks who risk life and limb for largely western clients to achieve their ambition in climbing Mount Everest.

Shortlisted now for a BAFTA (the award ceremony takes place on February 14) in the documentary section, there was a recent screening with producer John Smithson (“127 Hours” {2010}, “Deep Water” {2006} and “Touching the Void” {2003}) in attendance. After the screening, he explained the original idea and the final film were really quite different.

Director Aussie Jennifer Peedom and her team wanted to make a documentary about the role of Sherpas after the troubles there in 2013. The world was stunned when there were scenes of a fight on Everest between a European climbing group and some Sherpas.

The dispute was essentially about safety and reward; quite naturally the Sherpas feel exploited and used and see little of the £50,000-£70,000 many western climbers will spend to achieve their dream.

Sherpa Purba Tashi and Mount Everest

Amidst all that, history was about to be created as Sherpa Phurba Tashi prepared for his 22nd assault on Everest – a world record.

In all this lay the basis of a strong documentary but the filming team were completely overcome by events as it transpired.

Early on April 18 morning 2014, there was a tragic avalanche – a block of ice crashed down on Khembu icefall killing 16 Sherpas in one full, frightening swoop.

The consequences were drastic and tragic as all the grievances the Sherpas felt came into sharp relief.

They were angry and upset – few people seemed to care about their plight or their predicament.

With few economic opportunities open to them in what remains one of the poorest countries on earth, they help westerners and a few others achieve success and glory – with little to no recognition themselves or much pecuniary compensation.

That year, they stood firm and refused to work – despite the loss of income. Two earthquakes in April and May killed off any hope that the mountain might reopen in 2015.

Since then, no one has ascended Everest from the Nepal side.

Jennifer Peedom (director)

This year the season is expected to operate normally – with some restrictions.*

Peedom’s film is told from the Sherpas’ side and for that it should be commended.

The western climbers are shown for the most part as glib, and superficial at least in their appreciation of the issues.

One American comically complains that the shutdown of Everest by the Sherpas is a “terrorist” action and from somewhere (don’t ask where…) links it to 9/11 and militancy.

A rumour goes around that anyone trying to climb Everest will be physically stopped by some Sherpas. It sours relations on all sides.

Sure, the dispute does have a political dimension and Peedom’s film does not lose sight of that – though she rarely references it directly.

However, one scene graphically demonstrates the disparity – a Nepali government minister helicopters in to talk to the Sherpas about resuming their work.

He is met with anger and hostility and it’s hard not to feel sympathy for the Sherpas. The whiff of a form of corruption pervades the exchanges.

The commentary comes from interviewees and those profiled, including long time veteran tour operator New Zealander Russell Brice. Tashi works for Brice and it’s clear there is mutual respect.

For some, Brice is a hero (he offers decent rates of pay and conditions for sherpas and is a safety campaigner), for others a villain and part of the problem. It’s fair to ask why there are not more Nepali-owned tour operators (who vary more in quality and pricing). To her credit, Peedom does interview one and a good English speaker, he displays a cool analysis of the issues.

Phurba Tashi and Russell Brice (behind) at Everest Base Camp while a puja is in progress

Simply, it is a dangerous job and the pay (and conditions) hardly reflects the threat it poses for the individual and their families.

It is not clear how well – or if at all – the dead sherpas’ families have been compensated. The Government collects a considerable amount for permits, $11,000 (£7,500+) per climber.

In the film, the Sherpas are shown as heroic and noble and the cinematography is breath-taking at times and you can quite understand how someone would want to experience that for themselves and the gentleness and spirituality of the Sherpas contrasts greatly with some climbers, who are simply boorish and attention seeking and think Everest is no more than a top of the range challenge theme park.

This is a super film, made with great conscience and craft, and it deserves to be seen widely and will probably in time become something of an emblem of the Sherpa cause.

Smithson said it had been screened in Nepal and that most who had featured in it had now seen it – a Nepali language version is said to be in the works.
The film will be shown globally by the Discovery Channel in 2016

*The Nepali government which issues permits to climb Everest has already suggested that those without experience of climbing won’t be allowed onto the mountain this year. It also stated that it was unlikely to issue permits to those under 18 or over 75 or with a disability.

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture


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