Shining A Light On The Sherpa (Interview)

Film director Jennifer Peedom traveled to Nepal last year to make a documentary focusing on the often under-reported role Sherpas play in the huge business that has been built around Mt Everest climbing expeditions. Specifically, she planned to shine a light on Phurba Tashi Sherpa, who held the record with another Sherpa for most ascents with 21. But all that changed on April 18, 2014 when an avalanche killed 16 Sherpas. The tragedy brought into resolution just how much danger the Sherpas put themselves in (far more than the foreign climbers, and also how badly they were being treated, by the foreigners and their own government. Jennifer Peedom came away with a more different film than she bargained on, and a much more powerful one. The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda spoke to Jennifer Peedom while she was in Auckland for the screening of Sherpa at the International Film Festival.

Click here to listen to the interview with Jennifer Peedom:

Or, read a transcription of the interview here:

MD: The film took a different shape once events took place. What was your original intention for the film when you started shooting?

everestJP: The original intention was to follow an Everest expedition, all the way to the summit from the Sherpa’s point of view. I had been on a number of Everest expeditions, nine expeditions with the same ten Sherpas over the course of the decade and had always been frustrated at the lack of their inclusion in resulting film. I was often a camera operator or a ?? director in some of these big Discovery Channel type series and so had no control over whether or not they ended up in the finished film. So I had wanted to really show what I had observed over the years of the disproportionate risks that I saw that Sherpas take and just the amount of work they do that doesn’t get seen in these other films or acknowledged often by the climbers once they return home. So I wanted to tell that story just to show in a non-judgmental way what really goes on on an Everest expedition. Weaving through that I was interested to explore the history, so a historical element is still in the film. The history of the relationship between the Sherpas and the foreigners and how it’s changed and evolved over time. That was the original intention so when the avalanche hit everything changed, but then nothing changed at the same time because really that was the story. What was happening there was a scenario that I hadn’t anticipated but it was a scenario that illustrated the point actually.

Sherpa PosterMH: It seemed almost inevitable with all the stuff that was building up around it with a Hollywood film being shot at the same time, live TV wing/ suit jumping thing.

JP: It felt to me very much like…I really had a strong instinct that something was going to blow. There was this tension ricocheting up a notch, it felt like it was a good time to be making this film.

MD: You show the footage of the arguments and the fight that happened in the previous year. Was that pretty much looked at, at the time as being a one off thing and being dismissed or an isolation incident or are people still thinking about it last year?

JP: I think the people on the ground were keen to say it was a one off incident and sort of say it’s just a one off thing and it may well have been that. But what was interesting was the amount of people brushing it under the carpet saying,‘No, no, no, that’s not going to happen again, it was a one time thing.’

It came up again that the Sherpas can get angry and those threats of violence, or the rumours of the threats of violence, was used as a reason not to continue…as an example of maybe why we shouldn’t continue, that Sherpas can be violent. Where as from what I witnessed they were just rumours, I never saw any actual or heard any actual evidence of any of that.

MD: After the avalanche happened on April 18th, for you as a filmmaker, what did you have to go through to change the focus of the film? Obviously the film changed dramatically at that point, but logistically for you what kind of things did you have to go through?

JP: Logistically, it meant that I had to pick up a camera which I hadn’t done for a while and wasn’t that keen to do so all the wobbly out of focus stuff is probably all me. So I had to pick up a camera, I had camera crew spread all over the place because if I did have a camera guy acclimatizing over with the clients on the other peak and so it was a question of wrangling people. I also ended up getting my Sherpa translator and one of our assistants to go down to those initial protests with iPhones and record them and it was just a question of dropping everything and then filming everything because when you don’t know what the story is and what the outcome is going to be, you don’t know what scenes are going to be poignant and important to the story so you have to cover as much as you can so it basically meant talking to as many people as possible, just traipsing up and down that terrain endlessly, trying to line up interviews trying to line up Sherpas, trying to talk to expedition leaders to get a sense of what was happening really and really trying to understand from the Sherpas what they were really feeling.

Everyone is coming at things from different perspectives and the clients want one thing, the expedition leaders are trying to manage and balance everything, everyone’s needs and desires and their own businesses and the Sherpas want something else. I was really trying to really unpack what everyone was thinking and cover all these things and I wasn’t really understanding a lot of what was being said and having to get the gist of the translator and so it was just a question of working really hard and covering as much as possible.

Russell Brice
Russell Brice

MD: One of the characters that comes out that is pretty interesting is Russell Brice, the owner/operator of Himalayan Experiences. I get the feeling, as a viewer, I’m sitting there trying to figure out if he’s a good guy, a bad guy, an in between guy, if he should be demonized. Was that kind of process you were going through when you were making the film as well?

JP: Very much so, just trying to balance that because…it’s a really tricky one because Russell is one of the good guys in many ways in terms of his respect for the Sherpas and the way he treats his own Sherpa staff and he cares about them a lot. But I think he also there is a battle for control and it’s not in the interest of his business for the season to be shut down if he doesn’t want it to be because it destabilizes the industry and he operates within that industry, so he was in a very difficult position, I guess the way I would put it.

I just tried to balance and help people understand why he was under so much pressure and why he may have made some of those calls because he had cancelled due to safety concerns for the Sherpa in 2012.  That meant he had some clients back again this year and meant he really didn’t want to cancel on them again. He was in a really difficult position and I think in the end the way I feel about Russell is that his heart is in the right place and he was running around trying to save face for a lot of people and he may not have got it right but his intention was to do the best thing. I’m not sure he fully understood what was going on. I mean, this was unprecedented, it hadn’t of happened before the Sherpas had kind of united together and shut down the season. He chose personally and I feel he may feel this way, that it was a small number of what he calls, militant Sherpas. I don’t share that belief personally. I see it as a more united thing, it wasn’t four or five agitating Sherpas from was where I was standing it seemed actually the Sherpas were united but that’s something that he and I see differently. He’s been there for a very long time he sees a lot of things but I was taking a particular view point and I was getting a lot of information from Sherpas and Sherpa leaders and some of those Sherpas that were up there so I was getting a really good sense of how they were feeling where he was still running his expedition and trying to balance the needs of his Sherpa team and the clients and this very unusual political situation with the government involved.

Phurba Tashi Sherpa
Phurba Tashi Sherpa

MD: He seemed to be genuinely confused as to how the Sherpas could give up the work and the money. Do you think that’s a cultural difference between Western idea of, you have to earn a living, you have to…profit which is the ultimate goal, where as the Sherpas didn’t seem to hold on to that view?

JP: That’s what I found so fascinating by the way it played out. I think that Ed Douglas, the British mountaineering writer says at the end ‘this is unprecedented that the Sherpas gave up a seasons earnings to do what they thought was right’ and I think that’s what really came out. At the start the Sherpas didn’t feel like the had any power in the situation and I think in this situation it was such a shock, something like this had never happened before, sixteen of their colleagues, squashed. I think perhaps the depth of their spiritual and supersticial beliefs and feelings around this he had never had to comprehend before. I think it was too much at all the one time. You know, these are really spiritual people and that’s something that we really tried to explore and do in the set up, that they do believe that a God resides on Everest and therefore you have to be very careful and for this to happen, kill sixteen of their people, that indicates that something isn’t right. It did turn political and they did take the opportunity to say, ‘While we are at it we would like some better conditions,’ and I think those two things got confused as well. Russell and I have spoken about it since and he sort of said,’They had all these demands and I helped them put them to the government, those demands, so I was helping them with their demands but even so and once they agreed to their demands they still wanted to cancel the season’. And I guess what I saw was that the two things were never mutually exclusive and in my mind and possibly with the benefit of hind sight I feel that the Sherpas were never going to continue. But in light of everything that had happened they wanted to use the opportunity to draw attention to the fact that these conditions were woeful and needed to change.

MD: The Q&A that you are going to do on Sunday I think is going to be interesting because it’s a Kiwi audience and New Zealanders have a particular affinity with Everest with Edmund Hillary and he was kind of touched on in the film. Are you expecting any kind of particular reaction from a New Zealand audience?

JP: I don’t know, what do you think? As an outsider, we’re both outsiders, I actually don’t know.

MD: I actually think New Zealanders have an innate sense of fairness about them, so I think they will be cool.

JP: I hope so, should I be worried? I am anticipating that I guess because Russell is a Kiwi as well, I don’t know, I tried to make a film that isn’t overly judgmental or simplistic in its arguments and Russell has seen the film and he thinks it’s tough but fair and he recognizes that I’m looking at things from a different point of view. He’s got his point of view, so he’s been fantastic actually.

MD: What kind of questions do you usually get at Q&A’s?

everest_movie_poster_1JP: I’m just trying to think, in Sydney…you know, you get some technical questions you get some other bigger picture questions, they often blur out of your head afterwards. People often want to know about my access and my relationship to the Sherpas and how I got access and why I wanted to make the film. Similar questions to what you’ve been asking actually.

MD: I know there is a Hollywood film, the Everest film, I think it’s coming out next month. What kind of effect, if any that’s going to have on the focus of your film?

JP: You should have a look, there is a Hollywood Reporter review actually, if you Google ‘Hollywood Reporter Sherpa,’ you will find it and they already are making links between the two. I mean, their crew were filming on Everest the same time we were and so I spent a bit of time talking to their guys and it’s great the film. I think our film is sort of the antitheses of that and I think there might be one Sherpa character or maybe background characters. There is definitely not a Sherpa focus. And what’s interesting about that time is that at that time, as we all know Jon Krakauer was there to tell the story of the commercialization of Everest, they look like the golden years compared to 1996, was nothing in comparison to what is going on on Everest now. A lot has changed in two decades. I don’t know, I haven’t seen the film but, I think actually, the two of them could work quite well, see the Western side and now see the Sherpa side. I mean we’re hardly going to compete with a big Hollywood feature film but for people who want to know more, maybe Sherpa will be a good film to see, having seen Everest.

Click here for more info about Sherpa screening at the NZIFF.