Sherpa is currently playing at Melbourne International Film Festival, following its acclaimed showing at Sydney Film Festival as part of Official Competition, and ahead of its wider theatrical release later in the year. It’s a thoughtful, provocative film – our review is here – and Brad Mariano sat down with director Jennifer Peedom ahead of its three sold-out sessions at MIFF.
Mount Everest is something you’ve been drawn to before, as you worked on the documentary series Everest: Beyond the Limit (2006), as well as directing the documentary Miracle on Everest in 2008. Could you explain your attraction as a filmmaker to the region, or is this something borne out of professional and personal relationships?
Your passion projects always come out of fulfilling personal relationships… In my twenties I lived with Kiwis who would find any excuse to go the mountains, and through them had the opportunity to go the Himalayas, and found that I felt really alive there and I was immediately drawn to that place. I was just a young filmmaker at the time, I’d done the documentary series earlier, and I went to the north side of Everest in Tibet and it was extraordinary, and that was the first time I met the Sherpa team, including Phurba Tashi who is the main character in the film. And it just so happened my body didn’t have altitude sickness, I never even knew it was a thing, and I worked well at altitude so I was offered more gigs basically. At the time I had this other job, I was running this media agency and awards and so on, and in my time off I’d be shooting this project in the mountains. I resigned in about 2006 as the filmmaking side became too time-consuming, and that was the year I took the Beyond the Limit series.
I wanted to ask about how Renan Ozturk came onto the project; I believe he’s credited as a high-altitude director, the same role you had on Beyond the Limit. Could you talk about his contributions, and the challenges in shooting at high altitude?
One of the things that I knew you needed was people who had proven to be able to work at high altitude, and knew how to climb with the camera. Renan has such an incredible eye and such an incredible sensibility, so he was the first person I asked to be on the team, and that totally came out as validated. The reason why I credited him as director over the others is that he was absolutely incredible as the high altitude director, I guess with our collaboration I needed to recognise his contributions beyond just the cinematography, one of the things in a film that people really respond to is the remarkable cinematography, beautiful aerials… and that’s all the guys, but Renan in particular, and I just genuinely felt that he deserved that credit because he was such an important collaborator and did such an amazing job, and pushed himself completely beyond the limit. He dedicated himself to this film in such a way that it was his own passion project. It was a great honour, even from when he just said yes, and I’m so grateful.
Over the ten years you’ve been around Everest, have there been any noticeable technological advances that have made shooting there easier, or allow you to do things you weren’t previously able to? Watching the film, friends and I weren’t sure how some sequences were made – did you use a drone to capture some of those shots?
Actually no, they weren’t drones, because drones don’t function at that high altitude, but what there was was quite a lot of GoPros stuck on helicopters and so on. It may look like drones because of that. We never missed an opportunity when a helicopter went up the ice for whatever reason, we just chucked one on, I knew at that point after the avalanche the ice fall would almost become the subject of the film. We needed to shoot as much of it as possible, so we did a lot of that, and a lot of other aerials. Renan has with him a MōVI,1 which is common now but was pretty new at the time, and he had a relationship with the company which built it and they sponsored us, and gave us the device and so he did the aerial shots hanging out the helicopter door.
Well you touched on it there, but because of the avalanche the film obviously changes significantly from what it would have originally been. What was the film initially conceived as?
The film was always going to follow an Everest expedition from the Sherpas’ point of view, to change the focus from foreigners and focus on the Sherpas. Having been on a bunch of these trips and attempted in many of them to get more of the Sherpas involved, a lot of it always ended up on the cutting room floor, particularly when I wasn’t involved in the edit. So I had a strong desire to show what really goes on in an Everest expedition and how much work the Sherpas do. The intention was to highlight the disproportionate risk Sherpas take in taking foreigners to the summit, that they do a lot of the grunt work and they take more of the risk as they carry more loads and go through the ice fall more often.
We were to follow that all the way to the summit, then really early in the season the avalanche struck and killed 16 Sherpas, and no one knew what that meant for the rest of the season, but what it meant for the Sherpas was that it was a huge shock. It became necessary for me to just follow the story, so in some ways the answer to your question is that everything changed, and nothing changed, because we were always there about what the Sherpas do on Everest and the risks that they take, and the avalanche highlighted that in a way nothing else could have.
So the back half of the film becomes about whether or not they will continue on their expedition, which makes me wonder whether you and your team ever have that similar dilemma – whether you should consider stopping the film, or was this now the story that now needed to be told? Did that conversation come up?
It did come up, and it was on the day of the avalanche, Ken the high-altitude cameraman was on another mountain with the clients, [cinematographer] Hugh Miller had only just arrived and was still dealing with the altitude, so it was mainly up to Renan and I. Possibly because he and I had been on other expeditions where things go wrong and things are difficult, that we shared the same instincts that this was the story, and we had to very carefully assess on a moment to moment basis when it was appropriate to film and when it wasn’t, but there was never any doubt in my mind that this was the story, and it became very clear very quickly that this was probably one of the worst disasters in the history of the mountain – which was later confirmed – and it was all Sherpas that were the vicitims in this particular case, and here we were making a film about the Sherpas, and part of it was that it felt necessary to continue, as difficult as that was, and it was difficult.
What has the reaction been from the main subjects in the film, like Russel Brice and Phurba Tashi Sherpa, have they seen the full cut?
Fortunately Renan had to return to Nepal to do another shoot, he was doing a whole bunch of aerials and that just happened to coincide with us locking off the cut, so he went back to the village and had the film, so that was the kind of the sneaky world premiere, in the village, which was so wonderful and so appropriate. Unfortunately I couldn’t go over because I was still caught up in post-production and sound mixing, but Renan could and that’s so fitting because he speaks Nepalese and the Sherpas absolutely adore him. Everyone watched it, and they were really blown away and very proud of it, and Phurba Tashi said to me that he understood why we had to keep going, and I appreciated that. It was moving and wonderful that they were the first to see it. Russel Brice has also seen it in London. I’ve had a decade long relationship with Russell and he’s been a good friend over the years, and obviously the film was difficult to see but he was very generous, and said it was a very beautiful film, and he’s been incredibly supportive. So far so good!
Well then I just want to mention that it had its World Premiere – well, official World Premiere – at Sydney Film Festival and is now playing at Melbourne International Film Festival. What are your thoughts on the role and importance of these festivals now for Australian films, and in particular documentaries?
It was so important to be included in Official Competition in Sydney, and now in Melbourne, and to be given a really great screening profile and selling out all three screenings. It’s a remarkable amount of validation, and it’s a real honour, and to be given such a leg out into the world – so they are very important. Gillian Armstrong’s film [Women He’s Undressed], Gayby Baby, Only the Dead and Tyke Elephant Outlaw, it’s a really strong year for Australian feature documentaries, so its fantastic to see them getting such great profiles.
Thanks so much for speaking for me, and best of luck for the Festival!