‘Sherpa’ stuns with impactful storytelling, visual excellence

Sherpa stuns with impactful storytelling, visual excellence

Jenna Liu

The Sherpa’s harsh breaths punctuate the silence as the audience is treated to a view of the rocky terrain from the GoPro camera strapped to his head. The next shot, in stark contrast to the jarring bumpiness of the Sherpa’s climb, pans smoothly over sprawling Mount Everest, deftly captured by director Jennifer Peedom and her team. The wonders of the tallest mountain in the world are only enhanced by elegant camerawork that turns immobile rock into a glistening structure that seems almost alive.
Yet the soul of the story does not reside with the mountain, but with the Sherpa people who live in the villages nearby. Sherpas have a long history with Mount Everest, which they call Chomolungma, meaning “Goddess Mother of the Earth.” Since Tenzing Norgay Sherpa scaled Everest’s summit in 1953, alongside New Zealander Edmund Hillary, the Sherpa people have acted as guides for the few who have the time, motivation and money to tackle the mountain.
For every two trips the mostly-Western climbers take through life-threatening areas of Mount Everest, the Sherpas take 30. Despite the weight of the food, tents, oxygen canisters, ladders and other supplies the Sherpas must ferry up and down the mountain, the Sherpas’ historical reputation as friendly, happy guides prevails.
Their reticence to display their true emotions is one of the film’s few drawbacks; a healthy portion of the run time is devoted to interviews with Western climbers and tour operators who can give context and provide information, but not carry the audience into a Sherpa guide’s mind.
Still, the documentary is able to establish an emotional connection through its focus on Phurba Tashi Sherpa, a worker for an Everest tour operator named Russell Brice. It is through Phurba’s moments with his family—a gentle pinch to his young son’s cheek; quiet prayer alongside his worried wife—that the film finds its bedrock.
The familial images Peedom captures through her lens are a devastating reminder of how human the oftentimes desperate and underpaid Sherpa guides are. The class division between the Sherpas and the tourist climbers becomes especially apparent with bright comments from climbers about how “cool” the experience is, as Europeans and Americans lounge in spacious tents the Sherpas have assembled. Brice’s clients have likely dropped around $75,000 for the climb, while Phurba and his team make the dangerous trek every year to put food on the table.
The action spikes when when tragedy suddenly falls upon the expedition teams on Mount Everest, resulting in the film’s most chilling and heart-stopping scene. Demands for better conditions begin to brew and the stereotype of the always “smiling and happy” Sherpas crumbles as tensions flare between Sherpa guides and their bosses and clients.
With Antony Partos’ swelling instrumental score narrating the events, “Sherpa” tiptoes across the tightrope of anticipation and dramatic effect. Elegant cinematography and smart editing result in a film that is not afraid to linger on a spray of snow crystals or foggy breaths twisting through a muted headlight beam.
This is a story about family, identity and the dual beauty and ugliness of both nature and humanity. A rushing avalanche of ice moves with an almost poetic rhythm, yet will likely kill whoever falls in its path. The shocking moment an American climber refers to a Sherpa worker’s boss as his owner is balanced out by the true empathy other members of the expedition display towards their guides.
All in all, “Sherpa” is a true triumph in filmmaking, with a strong narrative ensconced in an uncompromising physical environment. It moves the spotlight from the highest peak in the world to the Sherpa people who make the trip to the top possible, at great risk to their own lives. Like Mount Everest itself, “Sherpa” will stand the test of time and emerge as a worthy portrayal of the bravery and humility it takes to climb a mountain, year and year again.