April 24, 9 p.m.
WHAT WAS SUPPOSED to be a simple documentary focusing on Sherpas — a Tibetan ethnic group whose members are regarded as elite mountaineers and often serve as guides for those who want to climb the world’s highest peak — during the Mt. Everest climbing season became a documentary bearing witness to one of the greatest tragedies to ever befall the mountain and the painful changes this group of people had to undergo after the disaster.
It was in April 2014 when a block of glacial ice on the western spur of Everest collapsed, triggering an avalanche that killed 16 Sherpa guides at the Khumbu Icefall (considered one of the most dangerous stages of one of the routes going up to the summit).
“We were making a film that highlighted the disproportionate risk that Sherpas take in taking foreigners up Everest, and then in this moment, 16 of them had been killed while carrying supplies for foreign climbers. I knew immediately that this was an important thing and that we needed to keep following the story,” said Australian documentary filmmaker Jennifer Peedom, during a regional phone conference on April 7.
The initial idea of the documentary, simply titled Sherpa — set to air on Discovery Channel on April 24 — was to show the world how Sherpa guides are the most important part of trekking Mt. Everest (Tibetan local name: Chomolungma).
“I have worked on various different expeditions over the years as a camera operator and a director. And it always surprised me — the extent to which [Sherpas] ended up being cut out of the films and documentaries that got made despite the fact that they did the lion’s share of the work on the mountains,” she explained.
Changing the focus midway due to the tragedy was not easy as she thought of putting the camera down and work on relief and recovery efforts, Ms. Peedom noted.
“When things like this happen, suddenly the phone starts ringing and your family are in panic and they want you to come home, and the Sherpas, they want to go home. I think when people die or you’re in a traumatic situation like that, you want to be surrounded by the people that you love, and being at Everest Base Camp is the last place you really want to be,” she said.
“But I felt very strongly that our objective in making this film was to highlight those risks — the risks that the Sherpas take in working on the mountain, and here was that. In a way, here was that exemplified by this tragedy.
“If we had stopped at that moment, for starters we wouldn’t have had a film. But I actually felt that we had a responsibility at that point to document what was a historic moment, and what became a historic moment — the first ever cancelation of a season. It was the first time that had ever happened, and you’re documenting a moment where history is in the making,” she added.
Aside from the disaster, the documentary shows the aftermath, with the Sherpas stopping work for the remainder of 2014 as a sign of respect for those who had died. Some even entertained notions of protesting or striking due to the insufficient aid that their government would be giving the affected families.
“What happened on the mountain and the fact that the Sherpas gave up a season’s earnings in order to stand up for what they felt was right will change the dynamic on Everest. It absolutely has changed the dynamic on Everest, because I don’t think anyone will take the Sherpas for granted again. They know now that you can’t climb the mountain without the Sherpas’s support, and I think the world knows that now… I didn’t know how this thing was going to end. I didn’t know whether or not some people would continue to climb or how it was going to play out, and it really played out as it did in front of the cameras, right up to the very last day when they finally canceled,” she said.
There were times when the filming stopped out of deferrence to the tragedy.
“There were moments where of course we put the cameras down, it wasn’t appropriate to film. So it wasn’t just a one decision, ‘Do we stop or do we go;’ it was, ‘Okay, right now I’m not going to film,’ but half an hour later, ‘yes, I’m absolutely going to film,’ and, ‘I need that, but I don’t think I should film that.’ So you just have to really trust your instincts as you go and make decisions on the run. I consulted very carefully and very closely with the five Sherpa people I had on my film crew. I had translators, cameramen, and camera assistants. But particularly, my Sherpa translator and interpreter, Nima Sherpa — I spoke to him constantly and would ask him: ‘Do you think it’s okay if we go and film this?’ Or, ‘Do you think it’s okay, or should we not do this?’ Or, ‘Would it be okay?’ And he always was like a consultant, in many ways, as to what was appropriate and what wasn’t. So we just sort of took it one step at a time,” Ms. Peedom explained.
The documentary went on to win the 2015 Grierson Award for Best Documentary at the BFI London Film Festival and was screened at the Toronto Film Festival last year.
Sherpa is premiering on Discovery Channel, on April 24, 9 p.m. — Z.B. Chua