From where I am sat right now—the sorry state of Reading, Berkshire—I’d have to travel 4,640 miles to reach Mount Everest’s base camp. It has always felt as mentally distant to me as it is literally and physically: a colossus we grow up hearing about, a mountain so big that people all over the world travel to climb it. Maybe it’s because I have always been averse to thrill-seeking, but the concept of Everest always felt like fantasy to me: mighty, famed, perilous. We know people climb it, we know people die on it, but how much do we really know about the mountain?In her 2015 documentary, Sherpa, Jennifer Peedom challenges this Western ignorance with a film that is both stirring and enlightening.
The Sherpa people are an ethnic group who have lived among Nepal’s mountains for generations: their outlooks, their concerns, and their voices are all deliberately front-and-centre in Peedom’s work. We are reintroduced to Mount Everest as Chomolungma, a mountain that exists religiously, economically, and culturally in the Sherpas’ lives. Across the course of the film, we learn how they have to constantly contest this rich bond with the mountain against those that see it as not much more than a physical achievement or a tourist attraction.
Peedom marshals the footage with poise and objectivity, editing her real-life characters into a narrative that reveals itself naturally and poignantly. Although sporadically narrated by writer Ed Douglas, the film does not rest on a voice of authority, but trusts its interviews to command the story organically. The ignorance of the Western climbers and guides is slowly revealed through their own reflection on the unfolding events, and when set alongside the Sherpa’s lived experience, it is blindingly clear how misguided their attitudes are.
Taking us all the way back to Tenzing Norgay—the first man to climb the mountain—and the fame he garnered, Peedom displays how this racist power dynamic has long existed between the Sherpa people and those they call ‘foreigners’. She tests our own ignorance, placing us in the homes of Sherpa families and demanding that we see what lies behind the curtain of Everest’s spectacle. People who respect Chomolungma religiously as a Goddess. Families that rely on Chomolungma as the economic centre of their livelihoods. A community who work tirelessly to safely facilitate the whims of thousands who come to climb this mountain that rests at their doorstep.
The crew were attempting to document the relationship between the Sherpa people and tourist climbers after a fight had broken out between the two groups the year prior. Inadvertently, however, their cameras were present at a momentous and tragic moment in climbing history, and one that brought to the fore deeply historical tensions between the Sherpa people and those they help climb Chomolungma. It becomes an overwhelming sequence at the film’s centre—weighty and devastating but handled with immense sensitivity. Those arresting wide shots are paired with the gut-punch of a Max Richter needle drop that lingers for weeks.
By its end, Sherpa becomes an exploration of labour, pride, solidarity, and all of the powers—the Nepali government, capitalism, Whiteness—that interlock to subjugate and exploit the Sherpas.
Peedom’s work feels beyond me. The film feels enormous in every manner: its sprawling cinematography, its spiralling narrative, and its unbelievable fortune in stumbling on a moment that instantaneously etches itself into history. After I watched it, and in my week I then spent in contemplation, I was reminded of how I used to think about Everest. More than anything, as a kid I could not wrap my head around the idea that people were out there, somewhere, doing such improbable things in the world, while all I could comprehend was the television a few metres away from me.
What Peedom does so well is to render the incomprehensible digestible—she reminds us that, below the summit, there are homes that belong to people. With raw and thoughtful filmmaking, she demonstrates that these people should be at the centre of every discussion about Chomolungma. She shrinks the 4,640 mile journey into 96 minutes of cinema. It is not enough time to document the Sherpa people comprehensively, but it is plenty of time to demonstrate why their story is one we urgently need to know.
Words by Ben Faulkner
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