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.

Chalet Girl (2011)

Coasting through the dregs and ephemera that crop up on the various streaming services, a wealth of films with stars you may have heard of but which have more or less been forgotten to history (usually for good reason), leads you down some odd little alleyways. This one, for example, is a snowboarding romcom leaning heavily on the upstairs-downstairs dynamic between an ordinary girl just looking to make some money to help support her single-father family, and the plutocratic capitalists on their winter jollies who have their own Austrian ski chalet. It capitalises on the charm of its rising-star lead actor Felicity Jones (as the girl, Kim, who has a perfunctory background as a skateboarding prodigy), and the chiselled jaw of television leading man Ed Westwick (best known as cad Chuck Bass on Gossip Girl, playing not far from type as Johnny, the scion of wealth and privilege). It also rounds up some likeable supporting performances from Tamsin Egerton as posh ski instructor (or ‘chalet girl’) Georgie, and Bill Nighy as the (as always) likeable father of Johnny, as well as Bill Bailey and Brooke Shields for bonus WTF points. Everyone else in this refined society, though, is just a one-dimensional upper-class berk with few redeeming features (though I don’t take particular exception to that). The resulting film may be as light and powdery as the snow that settles on their Austrian mountain, but there’s plenty to like all the same, whether the winning acting, or the actually rather sharp and deftly-put together script by Tom Williams, someone I’d not previously heard about, but a strong enough effort to make me want to seek out other things he’s done. Certainly worthwhile if it’s late on a weekend evening, you’ve had a few drinks, and you want something to pleasantly pass the time.

Chalet Girl film posterCREDITS
Director Phil Traill; Writer Tom Williams; Cinematographer Ed Wild; Starring Felicity Jones, Ed Westwick, Tamsin Egerton, Bill Nighy; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Saturday 25 July 2015.

The Epic of Everest (1924)

BFI London Film Festival 2013 This restored film is receiving its world premiere at the BFI Archive Gala on 18 October 2013 at the 57th London Film Festival. I was lucky enough to be able to attend a press screening preview.


When discussing films that are almost 90 years old — silent, black-and-white films from what seems like a dramatically remote era of modern history — you can apply different standards as to what makes them interesting: just the very existence of images from so long ago can be the cause of wonderment that wouldn’t be the case if the film had been made almost any time since. And though there are certainly aspects of that while watching this travelogue of a 1924 expedition to conquer Mount Everest, I think the majestic power of the images captured is at times as great as it would be in any subsequent film on the subject.

Part of the reason for the film’s power — and it does still have a marvellous capacity to create awe — is the newly-commissioned score by Simon Fisher Turner, who also recently worked on the re-release of another restored travelogue documentary of the era, The Great White Silence (1924). Vast shards of sweeping electronic tones locate us in that mythic territory that Popol Vuh explored in Werner Herzog’s similarly doomed epics of colonialist exploration in the 1970s and 1980s, but with a rougher overlay of sonic distortion, cracks and warping suggesting the greater age of the film. There’s also a more recognisably human element as snatches of naive local melodies and archival sounds from the era (provided via the director’s daughter) are interpolated into the score along with the subtle use of appropriate sonic cues to accompany on-screen action, such as flowing water when we see a river, or the scratch of a pen on paper in a letter-writing scene.

While the new music is marvellously fitting, it would not amount to much without Captain John Noel’s stunning images of Everest and the surrounding lands. I’ve already mentioned Herzog’s films, and there’s something here of the same grandeur and folly to shots of the explorers and their Sherpa guides wending a zig-zagged path across the vast barren snowscapes of Tibet. This is the terrain that the bulk of the film takes up — small, lonely figures set against the vastness of nature, interspersed with views of their camps and watchful shots of the mountainous challenges ahead. Noel in the film’s intertitles is very fond to emphasise the latest technology he’s employed to get these shots from great distances (the camera is unable to go beyond the camp at 22,000 feet), and the telephoto lens is put to good use towards the film’s climax.

But this is 1924, almost three decades before the first (verified) successful attempt on the mountain, and there’s still the need to locate the drama in an implacable fight of Man against Nature, the latter a vengeful, divine presence — for, after all, two of the mountaineers (George Mallory and Andrew Irvine) died in this attempt. Plentiful intertitles, most wearyingly towards the end of the film, make the connections plain, while also at times casting the enterprise in its more bare, colonialist light. Interludes featuring the local Sherpa population affect the patronising imperialist tone that one sometimes finds in travelogues of this long-ago era, the natives derided for being unwashed and not taking naturally to music. Though even here, it never quite becomes overbearing. This last point about their musicality, for example, is illustrated with plenty of evidence to the contrary, while elsewhere the Sherpas are clearly rather bemused by these pipe-smoking interlopers. The views we see too of their monasteries and hermitages perched precariously on the side of rocky mountainous outcroppings clearly give the lie to any implication about their backwardness.

Ultimately, music and images combine to create a fascinating document of a long-vanished era in exploration at one of the world’s harsher extremes. Projected on the big screen, the effect is one that is as wondrous and affecting as it must have originally been in 1924. I can recommend seeking it out if you have the chance.

CREDITS
Director/Cinematographer John Noel; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at BFI, London, Tuesday 3 September 2013.