Jennifer Peedom: Such Great Heights

April 4, 2016
The acclaimed documentarian behind the powerful Sherpa discusses its fascinating genesis, maintaining your moral compass in times of crisis, and the current state of documentary-making.

Having worked on a number of documentaries about Everest, Jennifer Peedom wanted to make a film about the individuals constantly left out of the picture: the Sherpas. The adventurous documentarian seized her moment when tensions started to escalate between Sherpas and cashed-up foreigners in Nepal. What the director wasn’t accounting for was the tragic events of April 2014 when 16 Sherpas died in an avalanche while escorting a group of mountaineers up Everest, leading Peedom to refocus her documentary and wade through challenging moral territory.

Did your interest in Everest happen organically?

It did, it totally happened organically. I had just come off doing Race Around Oz in 2000 and had quit my job in the corporate world and said ‘Yep, that’s it, I want to be a filmmaker.’ I took the job at [industry mag] Inside Film as an interim thing to tide me over, and I left seven years later. But in the interim, I still had this passion for documentary and wanted to keep my toe in the water. I had a housemate who was a New Zealand climber who did a lot of filming work in the outdoors, and he offered me a couple of jobs that I’d do on my summer holidays. One thing led to another, and the next thing I knew I was over in Nepal with a camera making films. I discovered that my body worked well in altitude, which apparently is not a thing… I have researched that it is a genetic disposition, and I definitely have it. What that means is that my body finds it easier to acclimatise, which means I can be climbing a mountain and still work. Some people can’t even acclimatise to base camp, and can’t cope at all, so it’s just one of those things; a stroke of luck.

The expedition leader, Russell Brice, who is in this film, offered me my first job as a camera operator on Everest. But I was never a climber. I taught myself to climb. I went over to New Zealand and did technical mountaineering courses, I did all these things so that I can be self-reliant, and was not relying on someone else to keep me safe. That was important because I didn’t want to risk someone else’s life to do the job that I was doing. And then I fell in love with it. For me, it’s a really magical place to be. Mountains make you humble. They return to you the sense of wonder that our modern lives steal from us. I go there to fill a need.

“For me, it’s a really magical place to be. Mountains make you humble. They return to you the sense of wonder that our modern lives steal from us. I go there to fill a need.”

Sherpa evolved as my own response to working on these other projects where I was camera operator and high altitude director. I did my own little piece for Dateline in 2004 about the Sherpas, and that meant that I had an in with the Sherpas. When I came back the following year, I showed them this little 18-minute film and they said that no one had ever done that for them. No one has ever told their side of the story; showed any interest in what they do, what their struggles are, and the spiritual conflict that they feel in climbing the mountain. Over the years, I formed this great relationship with them. I always tried to get their angle into the broad documentaries I was working on; I was always filming interviews with the Sherpas and they would never end up in the film. That’s the case with all the other dozens of movies and documentaries that have been made – the Sherpas apparently deplete the hero narrative of the foreigners to show that somebody else is doing most of the work. It was just something that bothered me, and I always thought that one day I will do the movie where I follow the Sherpas’ point of view.

That moment came when I heard that Russell Brice had cancelled his 2012 expedition out of safety concerns for the Sherpas. When we were prepping, that fight broke out between the Sherpas and foreigners. It was an international incident, it was on the front page of The New York Times. It was a really big deal because 60 years on from when Everest was first climbed, which symbolised everything good about camaraderie and teamwork, blows were now being exchanged. So it was a very symbolic moment and we knew right then that we had to be there for next year’s Everest expedition. This was the moment that something was going to happen; things were reaching a critical point in that relationship. I felt that if anything was going to go wrong, it was going to really blow up. I could have never anticipated that there was going to be an avalanche that killed 16 people, and things would blow up because of that.

Has Russell Brice seen the film and did he have a problem with the way he was represented? And also the foreigners? Ultimately they come off the worst, and you must have consciously chosen to keep those parts in…

You know, you think really deeply about those things. Obviously there was a lot of other things that were said that are not in the final film; we shot over 400 hours of footage and the film is 90 minutes long. We had about 10 weeks of edit prep just getting all the material together; logged, transcribed and translated. The edit itself with Christian Gazal was four-and-a-half months. You do think really deeply about those things; and how you’re representing people and specifically Russell Brice – how was I representing him and was it right? I think what you do is come back to the essence of what unfolded, because you cannot show everything. So you just say ‘Does this truly accurately represent the essence of what happened?’

Russell Brice does come across as a very conflicted character in the film, and I was very nervous about showing it to him. He gave me my start. He cares about the Sherpas. But we very deliberately dove into the shades of grey in this film and in the edit. It is a morally complex situation, so we just tried to be true to that. I got this text message in the middle of the night from our producer saying ‘Russell loves the film; absolutely loves the film.’ And I was really surprised and relieved. Then a couple of days later I got an email from him and he wanted to talk about certain scenes. So we got on Skype and it was a really long conversation. We disagreed about certain aspects of things that unfolded… I just said, ‘I don’t see it that way. I don’t see that they were militant Sherpas undermining what was going on at base camp. Your own Sherpas are in the movie saying that they don’t want to climb, and yet you insist that they do want to climb. It’s not true, it’s not the way I see it.’ To his enormous credit he really took it on the chin. He sees the world from a very particular point of view. In the end, he remains really happy with the film, and he said that it’s tough but it’s fair.

Sherpa_136_Russell-Brice

Russell Brice.

The way that I tried to deal with that is to create empathy for him; to show that in the past he had cancelled his entire expedition to the wrath of his clients because he was concerned for the Sherpas’ safety. There are not many people that would do that and it was a pretty big deal. We also pointed out that he’s under increasing pressure because of that; he has four returning clients on this expedition. We talk about the fact that he’s getting too old for this, it’s too stressful, he’s trying to sell his business and none of this stuff is helping that. So we worked really hard to create empathy so that people have some understanding. I’ve been really happy with the way that the audience has responded to that character; they get that he’s not a bad guy, he’s a good guy, he’s just compromised and it’s really complex. By doing what he’s doing, he provides continued employment for a lot of Sherpa people. And he does stuff like build community centres and gets his wealthy clients to kick in money for that. But this new movement towards self-determination is really difficult for him. But as I said to him, it’s not going to stop. These are people moving towards self-determination, and that’s what it is; they’re not militant, they just want what’s fair.

Do you apply structures when scripting the documentary?

Absolutely, I’m really rigorous with that. I’m really big on that and I choose an editor who’s big on that. Christian Gazal had edited both the Happy Feet movies, and he’s been schooled in the George Miller school of story, so he’s really big on story and structure. We set out to make a movie that was a big cinema experience, it wasn’t a meandering documentary because we wanted it to be thrilling, emotional and cinematic. We worked really hard on structure, and particularly the first act was incredibly difficult to set up because there were so many things that you needed to know to tell the story. At a certain point, the second half of the film became simple.

I didn’t know if we had a film. I didn’t really know what we had captured. We were just shooting everything we could. I don’t speak fluent Napali; I had a translator with me, but there was just not enough time to get it translated on the run. He knew exactly what I was after, and we would prep before the interviews… But I didn’t really know what we had captured in many ways until we got back and got everything translated. But I knew that I had an emotional arc to the story when we had our main character setting out to break the world record for the most number of ascents of Everest, which is a very Western idea, and his family are very upset about that idea. And then him being completely transformed by the experience?

“We set out to make a movie that was a big cinema experience, it wasn’t a meandering documentary because we wanted it to be thrilling, emotional and cinematic.”

Was Sherpa always going to have a theatrical release?

Universal Pictures pre-bought the film. It was conceived as that. I do think that’s important because I do see a lot of documentaries in this country being made, and the traditional funding route is to get ABC or SBS TV money, and then you’re kind of dealing with two different animals. I do make television documentaries too, and neither is better or worse, but you do need to conceive them in a different way. John Smithson, Bridget Ikin and I did a master class down at AIDC, and one of the things we would say over and over again is that you cannot make a feature documentary with a 12-15-week edit. Amy was edited for over a year, all of those feature documentaries are edited for a minimum of six months. Our edit was short. They’re different animals. That extra 30 minutes has to be a whole other level of storytelling.

Can you talk about the ethics involved in making a documentary like this?

All of those things cross your mind constantly. In the moment of the avalanche, that was the first thing that entered my mind – how do we do this right? How do we do this in a way that is not exploitative? And the way that I did that was to communicate constantly with my Sherpa team. I was concerned, and I know that Universal was concerned. We had to come back and re-pitch the film to them. It became clear that the summit was very important for them, but it was never important to me. But luckily we managed to convince them that we probably had a stronger film, and in the end they agreed that we did.

“In the moment of the avalanche, that was the first thing that entered my mind – how do we do this right? How do we this in a way that is not exploitative?”

What are your thoughts on the current state of documentary-making?

The genre is changing so much. I was just at a festival last week, and Morgan Neville who made 20 Feet From Stardom and has made this beautiful new film called The Music of Strangers, said that it’s a really exciting time to be making documentaries. Documentary used to be the spinach of filmmaking, but it really has changed. The conventions are changing, and films like The Imposter and Exit through the Gift Shop are blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Ultimately it’s storytelling, and you have to find your own moral compass to guide yourself. It’s about walking that line very carefully between being the filmmaker and the human being.

For me, the ethical considerations are not a one-off thing. It’s moment to moment, hour to hour. There were several moments during the avalanche aftermath that I stopped filming. There were others where I had to, and I did. You just decide. You’re there going ‘what am I doing here?’ I had a moment where I was holding a camera looking through a viewfinder and a body dropped into my frame. And I stopped. In any culture, it’s disrespectful to keep shooting. I’m not a war journalist. And this was suddenly like war. But I knew that it was important, from a long respectful distance to document it. And there are moments like that in the film, they’re always silhouetted and you can’t identify the particular Sherpa. But it was important to feel the emotion, and to understand the gravity of what has gone on here, and why the Sherpas are so upset. This is their reality. I don’t think the film would have succeeded if we didn’t go there.

Sherpa is in cinemas now. 

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