The movie “Pasang: In the Shadow of Everest” is the story of Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, the first Nepali woman to summit Mt. Everest in 1993. The Pasang Lhamu Mountaineering Foundation organised a fund-raising premiere of the film in Kathmandu recently as a tribute to the sheer spirit of a woman who had to overcome challenges beyond what is demanded of a mountaineer just to reach her goal. This, some claim, is a film that every Nepali woman should watch.
The film has won 14 awards including the prestigious festivals at Telluride, Colorado, BANFF, Canada, and Kendal Mountain Festival in the UK. It has been screened at 30 film festivals.
Nancy Anne Svendsen, the film director talks to WOW about why she made the film and her thoughts and inspiration on the mountaineer. Excerpts:
Tell us about why you chose to document the life of Pasang Lhamu Sherpa and make the film?
This is actually my second career. I was working in another industry as an executive in health care. My brother-in-law, Dorjee Sherpa, first told me about his sister, Pasang Lhamu Sherpa. I was immediately drawn to Pasang’s story and what she had to go through during her journey. Pasang had few rights as a Sherpa (indigenous) woman in Nepal in the 1990s. I was so interested in the story that I found out the possibility of making a film on her so many years ago. Dorjee had previously gone to Nepal and done some interviews but they never got funding, so nothing further happened. All of that material just sat in a box on somebody’s shelf for a long time. So, I decided I would like to make this film and asked if he would help me, and that’s how we started. This was 12 years ago, and over those years, I went about finding people to help me raise money for the film, help me creatively, and figure out how to make the film.
How would you describe Pasang Lhamu Sherpa’s journey as a mountaineer?
I don’t think she necessarily said, at ten years old, I want to climb Everest. I think she was following what her brothers and dad were doing. Her dad was a head, and her brothers were all helping him in his company by going on trucks and climbing mountains. She wanted to go with her brothers and didn’t want to stay home. Her mother planned for her, and they wanted her to have an arranged marriage. They wanted her to stay back and help her mom farm and take care of the children. She set off on her own boundaries and that was one of the things that were so amazing to me about her story and that I was so drawn to. She chose her own life, and the risks that she took to do that.
What was the process of the documentation of the film?
When I started, I had very little material. Dorjee, my brother-in-law, had come to Nepal with another filmmaker and the cinematographer, and they had shot some interviews in 1997. The family also helped get these big Nepali TV tapes of her funeral. That was the total material I had, but to make a feature-length film, I knew I had a lot of material to find. One thing that took a lot of time was tracing her story and finding people who knew her and were willing to talk to me for an interview. I came to Nepal, did two shoots, and then proceeded to France because a part of her story took place there. The first mountain that she actually climbed was in France. And people gave me home movies that they had taken.
Over the years, I pulled together all of that material. I did lots of interviews which I was able to use in the film. People gave me scrapbooks with pictures that were kind of crumpled which we ended up scanning. My team had people that helped us with archival work that helped us go and find historical material from the period so that it would be really accurate. For instance, we wanted to show what Nepal was like at the time that she was climbing. The whole political situation that was happening at that time in Nepal.
How did you feel during the movie screening?
It was very emotional because I started this project so many years ago here in Nepal, and it finally came full circle to bring this film back. There were so many people who were at the film screening, and the family of Pasang Lhamu Sherpa was also there. I knew how important it was to the family as well. I was really happy, and it feels like a huge milestone.
We are raising money to take the film out into the different provinces of Nepal. There are going to be three nights of public screenings and potentially more in the future.
I found myself throughout the process really identifying with her in an almost scary, intense way. It was like climbing my mini-mountain by staying with this project for so many years and raising the money over and over again. I had really big goals and wanted the film to be of a certain quality that I would feel satisfied with. Through the movie, I wanted everyone to know what she deserved as the national hero of Nepal. I faced lots of the same problems in terms of having to continue to face obstacles and persist by not giving up.
Can you tell us a little more about the major challenges of making this film?
A particular example was her last climb which she tried thrice, and then it was the fourth attempt where she summited but we had nothing for that at all. Finding a way to tell that story in probably the most dramatic moments of the film without any footage was really difficult. Milo Productions here in Kathmandu, a local producer, found the two Sherpas that saw her during her last of the journey and the one that actually spent the night with her when they bivouacked to the South Summit. Norbu Sherpa, the one person for whom I’d been looking for years, was finally found, and it was a very long journey to find him. We were able to convince him to stay and do this interview. It was a really pivotal moment for the film because finally, we had somebody who was there and could tell the story. My writer and my editors wove it together in such a way that we were able to create a really compelling story of that last climb.
After 30 years, the story has been brought to life…
People know about personas. She’s in textbooks, and her story is in a tiny little box with excerpts about the facts of her story. There were a lot of political issues for a number of years, certainly while she was climbing and right after she passed away. Nowadays, people are really receptive to hearing the stories of women who may have faded into the background but whose stories are equally important. People had forgotten about this story, but now worldwide, there’s a real focus on indigenous people and their rights. It’s a story that’s from many different places of struggles and success and people were naturally drawn to it.
Her story is one that has inspired lots of other Nepali women, climbers, and people in Nepal. It has legs outside of Nepal, as it’s also a universal story. It’s my hope that we will have versions that are available in different languages that we can show in schools not just in Nepal but also in the United States and other places around the world.
Women in mountaineering are rarely recognised in a big way. Your Thoughts.
If you look at the medium that we are using – film… and all the films that have been made about climbing and about Everest, most of them are about men. In the past, men have dominated the Everest narrative for years, and its really time to bring out the stories of these courageous, talented, and committed women who are not recognised. There are so many incredibly accomplished Sherpa women guides from Nepal that they need to be recognised.