Eyes on Screen are now proud to acknowledge the Lincoln Film Society. The Society is a voluntarily run, not-for-profit organisation. Each year, they organise a programme of screenings, offering the very best of contemporary world cinema. This allows beautiful films with little or no exposure to take centre stage in Lincoln. For their 2016-17 season, Eyes on Screen will be reviewing each film screened. For more information on the Lincoln Film Society, please visit their website. For the latest news, you can also like their Facebook page, and follow them on Twitter.
The following review is of Sherpa (Australia/UK: 2015) – screening #5 of the Society’s 2016-17 season, shown on Friday 28th October 2016.
Sherpa is a documentary that goes to the highest mountain on earth in order to explore the very human issues of spirituality, loss, and cultural divides.
The film follows Nepalese Sherpas and their business handlers (with input from academic sources) as they lead expeditions to the summit of Mount Everest for the benefit of foreign clients in the lead up and aftermath of Everest’s darkest day on 18th April 2014. This day saw 16 guides killed. We see the growth of the Sherpa image throughout history in relation to Western views as well as the growth they provide for tourism, the efforts they take to make this possible, and the rising tensions that threaten to boil over due to a lack of respect and empathy for their people and their way of life.
Jennifer Peedom’s efforts to capture Sherpa viewpoints, during a time when tensions between Sherpa guides and Western clients were rife following a brawl in 2013, was unfortunate enough to coincide with the events of 18th April 2014. This gives sequences depicting these events a very raw feeling. The confusion in the hours following the disaster is shown very well, not through use of shaky cameras but simply by allowing the participants actions to speak for themselves as they use their equipment to try and find out what has happened. But the film also heightens the tension through the use of a haunting score and astounding cinematography that shows how dwarfed the climbers are by their surroundings, with glimpses of icy cliff tops and vast mountainsides. This also brings a spiritual air to the proceedings as, like the Sherpa’s themselves, we see Everest presented in a majestic, godly fashion.
The participants themselves do a brilliant job of shepherding us into this world with experts and business associates providing detailed backgrounds on the history behind the practice and what the business means to the Nepal economy. But we are also provided a personal perspective from Phurba Tashi – the Sherpa that the documentary is primarily focused on – as well as the newer generation of Sherpa’s and their families. This allows Westerners a glimpse into their culture, which as the documentary shows, is so often neglected in favour of thrill seeking. Tashi himself is a very charismatic presence, never seemingly interested in the politics surrounding the business, instead just wanting to ensure everyone’s safety, allowing people to enjoy the thrill of climbing the highest mountain in the world which conflicts with the growing tensions surrounding the practice. But although Tashi does not wish to be involved, the film itself never shies away from showing us the politics surrounding the climbers. The new generation of Sherpas want more respect, and to cancel the climbing season to pay respect to those killed whilst Western business handlers want to keep the business going, showing that even today colonialism still exists. Sherpa seems firmly on the Sherpas’ side, often showing Westerners (unintentionally) as being thoughtless and idiotic. One climber compares his inability to climb to Sherpa protests of 9/11.
The presentation of events may seem a bit jarring to some cinemagoers as it begins by throwing viewers into the thick of the disaster, before going back to chronicle the events leading up to it, while also giving us the wider context of how Sherpas are perceived by Westerners. Then we return to the disaster and its aftermath in which the Sherpas revolt. It is clear that the disaster effected how the documentary was originally supposed to flow. Although these seemingly disparate elements do eventually come together to make a compelling whole, it can be confusing when watching for the first time. Unfortunately, presentation on the whole is where the film is let down. As, along with the editing which can feel disjointed at times, the film reuses several clips and reintroduces an expert with text several times which can take the viewer out of the experience. Another edit could have significantly improved the feel of the film.
In sum, Sherpa is a fascinating look into another culture we very rarely see. The world is introduced to us in a comprehensible and multifaceted way by some engaging screen presences and the film really makes you feel the plight of the Sherpas. The cinematography and score are hauntingly beautiful and the events are presented in a real and down to earth manner. However, the presentation may turn some viewers off as it can feel disjointed in trying to encompass the wider elements of history. The disaster, as well as its lead up and aftermath of said tragedy, can serve to take the viewer out of the experience. It is a worthwhile watch that, with a few changes, could have made essential viewing.
Written by Josh Greally