Sherpa (2015)

It may not be the only documentary out this year that deals with snowy climates (a NZ effort earlier dealt with the Erebus disaster in Antarctica), but in portraying the native Sherpa community of Nepal, Australian documentarian Jennifer Peedom finds a interesting way into a story that touches on a lot of issues of the moment, not least the corrosive effect of global capitalism on local communities. By living around the base of the Himalayas, the Sherpas pretty much single-handedly supply the workforce for the many expeditions of rich Westerners looking to scale the summit, as they seek closure of their respective personally-meaningful spiritual journeys or whatnot. It’s just that in doing the gruntwork the Sherpas are exposed to exponentially more danger than the pampered clients, without a great deal of reward or compensation when things go wrong, which they frequently do. Stories like this year’s blockbuster Everest tell of tragedies that kill (white) mountaineers, but in 2014, 16 Sherpas were killed on a dangerous iceflow, and that’s not particularly surprising to anyone interviewed here. And so the documentary moves from its inception as an unusually beautiful and lyrically-edited portrait of a community to being witness to a nascent political struggle, pitting that community against an unfeeling government, not to mention the rich adventurers who are as likely to compare them to terrorists for denying them their tedious pseudo-spiritual vision quests. Still, Peedom has a generosity of spirit which I lack, finding time to incorporate all these viewpoints and giving a real sense of what it is to be involved in the Everest industry.

Sherpa film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jennifer Peedom; Cinematographers Renan Ozturk and Hugh Miller; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 22 December 2015.

Manakamana (2013)

There are a lot of things that can be good about this kind of structural filmmaking. In the case of Manakamana, which takes the form of 11 shots of just over 10 minutes duration each, it’s in the faces and behaviour of its subjects. These are people who are travelling either to or from the eponymous temple, located on a mountaintop in Nepal, and which is primarily reached by a cable car. The film’s 11 unmoving shots are all from within one of these carriages, and there’s little enough to say about the form beyond that — in its rigorous and spare way, it’s reminiscent of the nature-focused pieces by US director James Benning, like Ten Skies or 13 Lakes — but this kind of rigorous formalism finds its fascination in the unexpected. The first two journeys (an older man and a boy, and a woman carrying a basket of colourfully decorated cloth) have no talking in them, so we can observe the view outside more carefully. Thereafter we get increasingly chatty travellers, including an older couple (reprised at the end), a trio of elderly women and of young metalheads, another single woman, a woman and her elderly mother, a pair of American tourists, and a pair of musicians who strum away on their sarangis. You find yourself becoming attentive to details, like surprise animal appearances, and the way the older women enthusiastically eat icecreams, not to mention the throwaway references to the importance of the temple, and the way people used to reach it, along with observations about road-building and housing in the area. This kind of project can be initially uncomfortable, but it’s not long until you get into the film’s pace — and when you do, there’s plenty to like here.

Manakamana film posterCREDITS
Directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez; Cinematographer Velez; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (Studio), London, Saturday 3 January 2015.