In 2014, Jennifer Peedom went to Nepal to film a documentary about the working conditions of Sherpas assisting Westerners to scale Everest. While she was actually shooting at base camp, the 2014 avalanche occurred, claiming the lives of 16 Sherpas, in the largest tragedy of its kind to occur in the history of Himalayan mountaineering. As a result, her documentary quickly became a study of the remaining Sherpas’ responses, filtered in part through her friendship with one particular Sherpa, Phurbu Tashi, but also attuned to the demands and dynamics of the group as a whole, especially as they pertained to Russell Brice, the leader of the mountaineering company Himalayan Experience Ltd. Over the course of several weeks, Peedom captured the interests of these different parties – and their efforts to come to some kind of rapprochement – with an understated observational flair, producing one of the best films about industrial relations that I have ever seen.
Before we even get to the Sherpas, however, the film is an evocation of Everest and an evocation of the Himalayas more generally. With the use of an incredible array of time-lapse drone cinematography, Peedom paints the mountain as a process rather than a place, poised in a continual state of reincarnation. As might be expected, that creates some extraordinary spectacles, especially of the Khumbu Icefall, a slope of continually moving ice boulders that forms the most treacherous part of the Everest climb. At any time of day, huge crevasses can open and massive seracs of ice can tumble down the Icefall, making it the only part of the mountain where this processual quality is available to the human eye, as well as the part of the mountain where that continual flux has proven to be most drastic in terms of its toll on human life. From the very outset, then, it feels as if the film’s time-lapsed drone aesthetic is first and foremost a way of conceptualising this terrifying space, which is also, not surprisingly, the only part of the mountain that hasn’t really been contained by the safety precautions brought in since the days of Edmund Hilary. In fact so treacherous is the Icefall that Westerners are only required to traverse it twice when tackling the mountain – once on the way up, once on the way down – while a single Sherpa may cross it twenty or thirty times in order to carry equipment up the mountain while their clients are resting at base camp.
It’s not surprising, then, that the Icefall becomes the major point of contention in the industrial disputes between the Sherpas and the mountaineers, not that it forms the main site from which the film resists the heroic, solitary, static poses of conventional mountaineering iconography. In place of lofty summits and sublime peaks, Peedom offers the Icefall, shot with a combination of drone cams, body cams and night cams that evoke an extraordinarily precarious landscape that has become even more so in the wake of climate change, which has caused the ice to calve and crash off at faster and faster rates. Indeed, so treacherous has the passage become with rising global temperatures that the Sherpas now only ascend and descend in the middle of the night, when temperatures are coldest and the ice is most stable. Although I’ve seen my fair share of mountaineering movies, I’ve never seen a spectacle as vertiginous, disorienting and chilling as the working conditions these labourers have to endure every day, as Peedom compiles shot after shot of them carrying material on the flimsiest ladders across yawning crevasses that have to be seen to be believed, in a world so full of careening angles and twisted sight-lines that it’s often impossible to tell up from down. Apparently, when there is a fall of ice from above, it’s heard before it’s seen, with no clear way to tell its direction, and no option but to stay still and hope that it doesn’t strike that particular part of the Icefall.
First and foremost, then, this footage of the Sherpas working their way up and down the Icefall is a serious riposte to the fantasy that Westerners “climb” the mountain in any genuine sense. Although part of the point of the film is to evoke the sheer amount of traffic on Everest – surreal spectacles of widescreen television parlours at base camp and hour-long waits on the way up – what comes across is how little the typical mountaineer actually does in the way of their own ascent. At the same time, there is a latent implication that the Icefall is in some sense the real thrill – it is dangerous enough, even when traversed only twice – or that it at least encapsulates the material cost of the thrillseeking that keeps this tourist industry afloat. Given that the Icefall is the only part of the climb that is visible in its entirety from base camp, that imbues this mercurial space with a quite terrifying sublimity, and turns it into the natural backdrop and field from which Peedom commences her investigation into the Sherpas’ working conditions. There is something uncannily apt, then, when her documentary is interrupted by the 2014 avalanche, during which a total of 16 Sherpas perished in a single hour on the Icefall, due to massive and unpredicted – because unpredictable – fall of ice from above.
At this point, the film – like the Sherpas – consolidates and moves from a general study of working conditions to a day-by-day depiction of the ensuing strike and agitation amongst the Sherpa community. At first the Sherpas’ demands are extremely modest: they don’t want to climb the mountain again until all the remaining bodies have been recovered (“the route has become a graveyard”), they want enough remuneration for the families of the climbers to perform proper burial rites, and they want an upgrade to their equipment, which is extraordinarily flimsy and precarious, especially given that they have used it to lug widescreen televisions up to base camp for their boutique clients. It’s at this point that the mountaineering operator, Russell Brice starts to take on more of a role. Any great strike documentary has to also be a study of the way employers break strikes, and I think it’s safe to say that I have never seen a viler, more revolting figure in a documentary than this racist slumlord, even or especially as he couches his wheedling, threatening demands in a rhetoric of friendship, concern and equality with the Sherpas. As he becomes more and more intractable, so do the Sherpas, until their demands have become fairly systematic and ambitious, as they call for a wage that properly remunerates their risk and a cut of the profits that are swallowed up annually by Brice and the Nepalese government.
Throughout the ensuing negotiations, Peedom remains extremely detached in her documentary style, never intervening, never speaking and barely imposing herself on the film in any discernible way. In that very gesture, she suggests a certain sympathy with the Sherpas, who retain a calm yet confident distance from every effort made by Brice to seduce or threaten them. At the same time, that detachment allows her unprecedented access to these industrial disputes, offering us something of a real-time insight into the lengths an employer will go to in order to break a strike. One my friends works in industrial relations and told me that the processes used here are strikingly similar to those in Australia: in an unevenly developed and globally disparate capitalist system, it’s extraordinary how far from home you sometimes have to go to see how things operate right under your nose. At first, Brice dismisses the Sherpa leaders as irrational, petulant and juvenile, then he sets the stakeholders – that is, the government and Western climbers – against them.Finally, he tries to undermine the Sherpas from within, calling a meeting to caution them that they may face threats of physical violence from other Sherpas if they continue with their demands. In all the documentaries I have seen, I have never experienced such a visceral and shocking proximity to exploitation – only Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County U.S.A comes close – even or especially as Brice presents his exploitative agenda to the Sherpas in the most wheedling, whining, sentimental tone possible, invoking their shared burden of risk even as he remunerates himself for and insulates himself from virtually every risk that they take.
Whether or not he is genuinely hurt that the Sherpas were unwilling to have him continue to be remunerated for their risk is unclear, but in his actions and attitudes Brice often seems to epitomise a moment in capitalism at which the rhetoric of democratic rationality has been put to the service of the most insidious financial agendas, creating a cognitive dissonance within which anything that doesn’t immediately and shamelessly enhance the profits of the employer is deemed irrational. Time and again, Brice derides the “irrationality” of the Sherpas in seeking a fair wage, safer working conditions and a viable future for their families and loved ones, imparting the same attitude to the mountaineers in turn, one of whom brand the Sherpas “terrorists” and demands that they be held accountable to their “owners.” It’s not surprising, then, that the Sherpas themselves frequently remind us that Nepal has only become a democracy in the last couple of decades, since it becomes clearer and clearer that the relationship between Sherpas and mountaineers emerged at a time when the former were still feudal subjects. While the mountaineers may have been coming from democratic countries – especially the United Kingdom and United States – they were able to treat the Sherpas in a feudal manner, recapitulating the entire colonial project – treating colonial subjects feudally in the name of democratic expansion and enlightenment – in microcosm. By the end, it is painfully clear that the pleasure of mountaineering is in some sense a colonial pleasure – the pleasure of contemplating your conquest with Brice utterly scandalised by any attempts on the parts of the Sherpas to democratise, let alone unionise, and Edmund Hillary coming away looking pretty bad as well.
It’s an incredible decision, then, when the Sherpas decide to forgo a year’s wages by refusing to climb out of respect for those who have passed away. While that’s presented as a collective decision, Peedom also filters it through Phurba, who was about to make his 22nd ascent in 2016, which would have set a new record. While there’s a certain melancholy in his decision to abstain from the mountain, there’s also a sense in which his sublime, individual conquest of the mountain has been replaced and subsumed into a very different kind of sublimity – a sublimity of the group, of collective action and collective bargaining. In place of the individualistic self-apotheosis that drives the American climbers in particular – one man tears up because the deaths of sixteen Sherpas has prevented him fulfilling his “legacy” to his own family – collectivity becomes a horizon, which is quite unusual, in some ways, for a mountaineering film. If the mountaineers see Everest as a static achievement, the Sherpas see it as an ongoing process, a continual movement, and so by deflecting that into their strike action they have in some sense retained true to Everest as well. With the 2015 earthquake precluding climbing once again the following year and 2016 to be the first time since the avalanche that mountaineers will return to the slopes, the film feels timelier than ever. Nevertheless, visions of this kind always feel timely, especially when deal with as judiciously and clinically as they are here, in what one of the best films about industrial relations that I have ever seen.