Sherpa director Jennifer Peedom, whose film screened at Toronto film festival, went to Everest to shoot one documentary but returned to her Sydney editing suite with something wildly different.
The Australian director had visited the Himalayas for close to a decade and was tired of seeing Sherpas end up on the cutting room floor. She planned to shoot a film from the Sherpa point of view set against a backdrop of political awakening among the ethnic Nepali people. But the Sherpas had become tired of their image as smiling pack mules for the booming Everest expedition business. When an April 2013 stand-off between local guides and mountain-climbing tourists went viral, Peedom knew it was time to act.
“It was the moment everyone realised,” says Peedom. “I had been talking about doing this film and when we were cutting our pitch trailer the fight broke out and we knew our instincts were right.”
With the help of two key producers, Peedom pulled the Australia-UK co-production together. Felix Media’s Bridget Ikin brought in financing from Screen Australia while Arrow Media’s John Smithson, the Briton who produced Touching The Void and 127 Hours, got Universal Pictures on board. Peedom arrived at the Everest base camp with a small crew in time for the April 2014 climbing season and got to work. Part of the film would follow Phurba Tashi, a lead Sherpa guide and personal friend of the director who had climbed the mountain 22 times. The film would also follow a female Sherpa making her first crack at the summit. Then events took a horrifying turn as an avalanche claimed the lives of 16 Sherpas.
“I was really aware I was witnessing something historic, so as difficult and confusing as it was a times I felt a strong need to soak up as much as I could,” says Peedom.
“John [Simpson] told me to vacuum everything up. It’s one thing to say and another thing to do. One of my cameramen was acclimatising to the mountain and another one had arrived and was sick and could not function.”
Peedom picked up a camera and shot what she could. “At times we had to put the cameras down because there were some things we could not film … Many of the Sherpas were there digging up bodies of their friends and brothers and it was hugely emotional. At times I felt I wanted to go home but you’re there to tell the story: that’s your job as a documentary film-maker.”
“When those Sherpas died on that day it became clear there would be no further climbing we had to scramble and come up with a different film,” said Smithson, who was in Mexico when the avalanche struck and tried to stay in constant contact with his director via Skype.
“Jen was incredibly gutsy in an incredibly demanding situation. We stayed with it as it evolved from emotion into anger and it blew open that fault line we had been seeking to explore. In the most tragic of circumstances it was clear we had a fascinating film on our hands.”
The Sherpas assembled on the mountain after the catastrophe and staged a protest meeting. Footage shot by one of Peedom’s Sherpa cameraman on an iPhone show younger, more militant Nepali guides urging their brethren to cancel the climbing season out of respect for the dead. Peedom kept her distance and watched from the outskirts of base camp without a camera in her hand. “For a while I was on my own when these protest meetings were happening and I wasn’t sure it was appropriate to film the first meeting.”
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“The film changed once the avalanche happened,” said Smithson. “It was going to be a film from the Sherpas’ point of view; form the happy, smiling, deferential times to the modern situation where there had been more antagonism and some resentment and the sense the mountain was becoming commercialised.
“That was to be the backdrop and we would focus on two Sherpas: Phurba Tashi, who you see in the film, and another Sherpa, a woman, who was going to climb to the summit for the first time.”
Footage of the female Sherpa preparing for her climb ended up on the cutting room floor once the avalanche occurred. Phurba Tashi remains in the film but now the focus is his torn loyalties between earning money for his family by guiding an expedition to the summit and aligning himself with his people and refusing to climb. Peedom filmed what she could and captured raw responses to devastation as Sherpas and the mostly Western tourists on the expedition react to what unfolds, while the protest meetings continue and the climbing season hangs in the balance.
“It was a fantastic challenge … I was worried,” says Smithson. “Did we have a film? Jen as getting all this material but we didn’t know what we had until they got it back to Sydney and I remember seeing these powerful shots of Sherpas being lowered down a line and I started to think we had potential documentary gold.”
“I didn’t understand what was going on and I had a translator to help me with what was happening,” says Peedom, who resumed filming as diplomatically as she could. Her crew was known as the documentary unit and the local people helped. “By the end they were [doing whatever they could to ensure] I could get better shots.”
The resulting film premiered at the Sydney Film Festival last June and earlier this month played at Telluride. Even this was not without drama as Sherpa replaced Amazing Grace as opening night film after a Colorado judge granted Aretha Franklin’s wishes and blocked the film at the eleventh hour.
“It was a whirlwind,” says Peedom.