There’s one showing of Jennifer Peedom’s documentary Sherpa left at TIFF, Sunday at 9:00 PM at the Bloor Hot Docs cinema. Go. You can buy tickets at the door. Just go. Don’t think any more about it. Trust me, just go.
If you’re going to go, don’t read any more of this. Just go.
For my writer friends not in Toronto, here is why I’m pushing this movie:
Sherpa is the most Science Fictional movie I’ve ever seen.
Jennifer Peedom has been working on Everest documentaries for a long time, always cognizant of the fact that every human movement toward Everest is backed up by the intense physical labour of Sherpa men and women working long hours in incredibly dangerous conditions. In all the movies she’s worked on, Sherpas have ended up on the cutting room floor. Nothing — not one inch of footage– could happen without Sherpas, but they’re in the background. Sherpas are scenery.
So she set out to produce and direct a documentary about Sherpas, not only with a Sherpa subject — Everest veteran Phurba Tashi Sherpa, aspiring to ascend Everest for a world-record-breaking 22th ascent in 2014 — but also with Sherpa cameramen and crew.
Now here’s the Science-Fictional situation:
Since well before Tenzing Norgay’s ascent of Everest in 1953, Sherpas have been essential to every Himalayan expedition. They have been the hard-working, but minor beneficiaries of an increasingly lucrative mountaineering and adventure industry, receiving salaries that are high for their economically depressed region, but extremely low compared to the profits that the Nepalese government rakes in, or compared to the salaries of the white alpine guides or the profits of the expedition business owners.
As Sherpa communities have become more connected to the outside world, more and more Sherpas have traveled outside the Himal to receive education. They are connected to social media; they have a sophisticated understanding of their socio-political situation, and the fact that they are the key element in delivering an experience that is unmatched around the world. They are also not content to adhere to the expected role of the smiling, happy, compliant, helpful Sherpa. They are self-actualized; they know their worth.
Sherpas are a modern community of people who are deeply attached to their unique culture and religion. Their spiritual beliefs involve a reverence for and a specific way of being in the natural world. This includes deeply-held beliefs about the proper way to behave on and around Chomolungma, Everest, the Mother-God-of-the-World, and how to interpret and respond to her actions.
In 2013, the year before this documentary was shot, these tensions came to a head when three climbers (Swiss, UK, and Russian) ignored, abused, and disparaged Sherpas during an Everest ascent. The Sherpas, who in the past have absorbed such abuse, did not accept it. This led to a physical brawl, which, in such extreme conditions in a small and isolated community, is an extremely dangerous and deeply troubling situation with life-and-death repercussions.
In 2014, this documentary is being shot. And 13 thousand tons of ice drops on a team of Sherpas ascending the first stage of Everest, the Khumbu Icefall. Sixteen Sherpas are killed.
Why this is Science Fictional:
This movie is utterly about the confrontation with the other, with ways of thinking and being in the world that are foreign. It’s about another world, where diametrically opposed forces blow up in people’s faces, and there is not one thing anyone can do about it. It’s about meeting someone whose world view cannot accommodate yours, and the dramatic weights that are still at this very moment hanging in the balance.
This is absolutely a must-see movie. Its historical-socio-political analysis is thousands of layers deep. It’s everything that we see movies for. See it now.