A fight on Everest? It seemed incredible. But in 2013 news channels around the world reported an ugly brawl at 21 000ft as European climbers fled a mob of angry Sherpa mountain guides. What had happened to the usually happy Sherpas and their dedication in getting foreigners to the top of the mountain that they hold so sacred? Determined to explore what was going on, Jennifer Peedom and her crew set out to make a film of the 2014 Everest climbing season, this time from the Sherpas’ point of view. Instead, they captured a tragedy that would change Everest forever.
Jennifer Peedom’s jaw-dropping documentary Sherpa is nominated this year for the Best Documentary BAFTA, and has received rave reviews across the board. We sat down with Jennifer to discuss the making of her film, the plight of the Sherpas, and the huge shift in attitudes brought about by the recent dramatic events on Everest.
No one could have predicted the 2014 tragedy at Khumbu icefall [where 16 climbers lost their lives] and the subsequent drama and tension that unfolded from it that ended up being the focus of Sherpa. With this in mind what film did you originally set out to make?
The original intention was to follow an Everest expedition from the Sherpas’ point of view. I’d worked on a number of Everest expeditions over the years – I’d been on three before, and I had worked as a camera operator and director on all of them – and always with that same Sherpa team which was lead by Phurpa Tashi [a leading Sherpa and central figure in the film], so I’d got to know him quite well over the years.
I’ve always found that dynamic between the foreigners and the Sherpas interesting, particularly when it comes to summit day, when things really get messy. You really have a clash of intentions when summit fever grips and people really want to get to the summit – and that’s not always in their best interests or in the interests of the Sherpas’ safety. On most of these expeditions – certainly on Russell’s [Brice, Everest expedition leader and employer of many Sherpa guides] – the clients have individual Sherpas, and what I’d observed on those trips was the extent to which those guys really are saving people’s lives. Their clients, whilst they’re grateful when they’re still at base camp, go home and quickly forget that part of the story. I know that the Sherpas watch these films because they end up on YouTube, and they start to get frustrated at the extent to which they’re left on the cutting-room floor and these films turn out to be like Western glory films.
So the original intention of the film was to really show what goes on all the way up to the summit and back down again – which is often when things get messy. And it just so happened that Phurpa Tashi was going to be making this world record-breaking ascent [his 22nd ascent of Everest], so that was part of the plan as well. It was also to highlight the disproportionate risk that the Sherpas take getting Westerners to the summit and back down again safely. Though as you said we could never have anticipated the extent to which that disproportionate risk would be highlighted. So when the disaster happened we found ourselves suddenly asking ourselves what to do, and to me the answer was pretty obvious – that we should just keep going.
At one point in the film, another film crew suspended filming as they felt that their presence would be unwelcome at such a tense time. Did you ever find yourselves in a similar situation or had you made it very clear from the off that you were on the Sherpas’ “side”?
Ed Wardle, the director for that programme, is a smart guy, and I’d worked with him on Everest before. Did we ever feel unwelcome? The base camp is extremely spread out, and my Sherpa team knew exactly what we were doing – some of them knew me quite well because I’d been on expeditions with them over the years, and I’d been to visit to neighbouring camps and talked to their Sherpas’ leaders, so they were aware of what we were doing.
Down at the helipad where we were filming the day of the accident, some Sherpas told us we couldn’t film there – but one of the guys from the other expedition explained what we were doing, and it became OK for us to be there. It became so tense after that day and I didn’t want to feel intrusive – it was highly emotional for them, they didn’t want people gratuitously filming everything. Some other members of our crew were told not to film at various points – though as you can tell from our coverage in the film we were pretty discreet about it, and did have many conversations afterwards about what we would feel right using.
There’s a camera crew filming every expedition, but after that day these crews all disappeared – because of the fight the year before everyone was on tenterhooks, and now knew that Sherpas can get angry and violent if provoked. It could have something to do with my being a woman, but I was basically the only one running round with a camera at that point. I had a Sherpa translator with me who knew a lot of people, and we had four highly-trained Sherpa camera operators, so word spread pretty quickly [about their good intentions] and I was always able to gauge whether or not it would be appropriate for us to be filming in any given situation. For example at the very first protest meet I decided it wasn’t appropriate to go, so my Sherpa translator and one of the camera assistants went down there and filmed that on their iPhones. At the subsequent meetings, like the memorial service, that was me filming, and at that point I found it amazing – at those meetings more camera people started coming back, and certainly at the government meeting there were loads. At that one Sherpas were actually pushing people out of the way to get me a better camera angle, and pulling me up onto rocks, passing me batteries and holding my stuff – and these were guys I didn’t even know. So I felt that at a certain point people knew that I was the person making that film [the pro-Sherpa film] so I felt very supported.
Other than the fact that you were shooting at one of the most dangerous locations in the world, what in your mind was the greatest challenge of the shoot? Was it physical, emotional or political etc.?
I guess it was the uncertainty of not knowing how it was going to play out, and not knowing whether we even had a story. I know that Universal really wanted an Everest ascent in the film, they’d made that really clear. After the disaster that was looking less and less likely, and yet my instinct told me that this is probably a more interesting film. Though as I said, I honestly didn’t know if we even had a story until I got back to the editing suite a couple of weeks later – but I felt good that we had a strong emotional arc when Phurba Tashi said in his final interview that he was probably going to quit climbing. I felt in the moment that that was important. I was kind of relieved – A) that he was stopping climbing – for his family’s sake as much as his – and B) that I probably had a good emotional arc for this story.
Truly the hardest thing though was the emotional side – it was going back and seeing his wife, and seeing the pain in her face when at that point she assumed he was probably going to keep going – and then the huge relief when she found out he was alive [after the disaster]. But going to visit the other widows in that same village to pay respects – seeing those families was definitely the hardest day of the shoot. Ultimately it was really lovely, but you did verge on feeling like an ambulance chaser that day. I’m glad we pushed through though because it ended up being a lovely experience, but it was so hard not knowing whether or not we were doing the right thing. In fact Renan [Ozturk, one of Sherpa‘s DPs] had spent a lot of time in Nepal with all those guys, so particularly for them it was a very emotional and traumatic experience.
A major talking point coming out of this film is the Westerners’ attitudes towards the Sherpas, and particularly some of the language they use which has overtones of colonialism and even slavery [in the film a Western client refers to the Sherpas’ employers as their “owners” and draws parallels between the striking Sherpas and terrorists]. Were you surprised by just how strong those feelings were and did you find it difficult to remain impartial?
That particular moment I remember my jaw just dropped, but you try not to intervene and it would have been inappropriate to in that meeting in any case. Being generous I would say that he meant the expedition owners, rather than the Sherpas’ “owners”, but it was a bad slip.
What surprised me was the extent to which the clients – some more than others – really swallowed hook, line, and sinker what Russell Brice was telling them. Part of that was because they had been acclimatising on a nearby peak, and unlike me they weren’t running around base camp talking to every Sherpa they could find to find out what was going on. So their perspective was just “am I going to get to climb or not?”, and that was really where their interests lay. Russell was telling people not to go out and walk around base camp – as I imagine other expedition leaders were – because apart from me, my crew and some yaks coming in and out, the paths were quite empty. So I think everybody thought they had to stay away from the Sherpas for fear of provoking something, and they wanted to let everything simmer down and hopefully everything would be fine again.
I had a different perspective of what was going on. To be fair to them, it wasn’t until I got back into the editing suite and had everything translated in detail that it really became clear just how clear the Sherpas were, right from the beginning, they weren’t interested in climbing – it was never going to happen. I think this is where Russell got really confused, in trying to help the Sherpas have their demands met, and marching off to Kathmandu to talk to the government – he really thought that if he could get their demands met they’d be fine and would continue climbing. He and I have had this conversation and I think he missed the point there – because yes, they decided that while the world media was watching they might try to improve their conditions, but they were never going to climb over the bodies of the three guys that weren’t able to be retrieved [from the icefall].
What I learnt a lot about on this trip more than I had before was just how superstitious the Sherpas are – they were terrified of Everest, and felt that the mountain had spoken and was angry, so they thought that it was time to give the mountain a rest. I don’t think Russell understood that – he just thought: “OK, this is your job and your livelihood, so I’m going to help you find a way to continue,” and then got very frustrated with the guys that wouldn’t listen to him. It was very interesting to watch the whole thing implode.
On the subject of Russell, he certainly comes across as a fascinating and complex “character” – a sort of grey area in between the Sherpas and the Western clients. Has he spoken to you about how he is portrayed in the film?
He has actually. To his great credit, in his words he thought it was “tough but fair”. His first reaction was actually that he thought it was beautiful and amazing, and he loved it – then after a couple of days he told me that he was a bit worried about how he came across. We talked about it, and in the end he agreed that we hadn’t manipulated anything – that it was honest. So I was surprised and kind of pleased. I think he is genuinely trying to do the right thing, but he’s between a rock and a hard place – and he just has an interesting sort of manner, and you have to be a particular kind of person to run an Everest expedition. For him it was just one knock-back after another, after another – he’s had a lot of bad luck on the mountain.
He sees things differently to me – he sees those Sherpas that are agitating for change as militants, and I don’t see it that way. Again, we’ve spoken about this – I see it as a group of people moving towards self determination, which is a really natural thing, and you can’t blame them for wanting to do that. But to see it that way isn’t really convenient for Russell because he’s trying to run a business, and all of this stuff is weakening that base. In fact he’s trying to sell his business, and all this doesn’t bode well for that. So he’s in a tricky situation – he’s at the end of his career, he’s ready to let it all go, but suddenly all of these things are just decreasing the value of his business.
This year has been an incredible year for great documentaries. Are there any you’ve seen this year that you’d particularly recommend to our readers?
There has, it has been a really amazing year. Cartel Land I thought was amazing, and obviously Amy was totally fabulous. Renan, my cinematographer, also worked on another film called Meru, a really excellent climbing documentary. It’s a more traditional sort of climbing film – but just by virtue of the fact that Renan managed to keep shooting at some really hairy moments, it’s some of the best captured suffering I’ve ever seen in a mountain film. It’s absolutely authentic, so really powerful. And of course Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence. That’s such a powerful film – he’s just one of a kind, that guy.
SHERPA is nominated for Best Documentary BAFTA, is currently in cinemas and will broadcast globally on Discovery Channel in 2016 http://sherpafilm.com/