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Everest: does it take a movie to move mountains (and change laws)?

The Nepalese government is to limit access to Mount Everest to experienced climbers only. The inexperienced, old, infirm and those considered too young will be prevented from attempting to scale what still remains the ultimate mountaineering achievement, 63 years after the first successful human ascent by Tenzing and Hillary in May 1953.

The announcement came four days after the disaster film Everest was released in theatres across the world. If this is a coincidence, then it is certainly a curious one. Future research may or may not uncover direct correlations, but the Nepal government’s announcement voices concerns similar to some of the key themes in the film, which is based on the 1996 Mount Everest disaster in which eight climbers died in a single day.

Chief among these themes is the issue of “overcrowding”, caused allegedly by “amateur” climbers like the Texan millionaire Beck Weathers played by Joe Brolin in the film. His story is narrated as being “typical” of the dangers faced by relatively inexperienced climbers in their search of adventure and glory by paying large sums of money to a tour company. As Mohan Krishna Sapkota, the joint secretary of Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism, clarified: “The glory of Everest climbing — is a matter of adventure and competence, not a matter of luxury.”

Millionaire adventurer Beck Weathers, played by Josh Brolin Universal

This of course, begs the question why these measures were not put in place after the disaster in 1996, even though the alarm bells had begun ringing for a while. Jon Kracauer’s widely read personal account the 1996 disaster, Into Thin Air, was first made into a television film within a year. German mountaineer Ralf Dujmovits who reached the summit of Everest in May 2012 criticised “hobby climbers” for endangering the slopes when publishing his photograph of the “human snake of tourists” climbing Everest. He described 39 expeditions of more than 600 people trying the ascent at the same time.

There was little evidence of legislation after the avalanche of April 2014, which killed 16 Nepalese guides – and the 2015 climbing season was well under way when it was halted after the colossal loss of life in the Nepal earthquake in April. As a report in the National Geographic predicts: “intense demand” means climbing season in 2016 will be “as busy as usual”.

The significance of the announcement as well as its timing may lie in the statistics provided in the 2014 annual report of the World Travel and Tourism Council. The tourism industry accounted for 4.3% of Nepal’s total GDP in 2014 and was forecast to rise by 5.4% in 2015 and by 4.4% each year from 2015-2025. Travel and Tourism investment in Nepal would rise by 12.0% in 2015 from 3.6% of total investment in 2014 and would continue to rise by 5.2% each year over the following decade.

No place for the inexperienced amateur. Universal

The earthquake in April caused serious harm, evidently, for Nepal’s economic plans for the tourism industry in a key year. The negative publicity ensuing from a major Hollywood blockbuster screened in theatres across the world has almost certainly compounded the damage.

Movies lead, governments follow

To what extent films influence government policy is likely to remain a matter of debate as evidence is notoriously difficult to gather, though research suggests that governments take the film medium much more seriously than they are prone to admit. In a paper for the Australian Journal of Political Science in January 2015, Dr Christopher Neff from the University of Sydney outlined clear correlations between the Australian government’s policy on identifying and killing “rogue” sharks and Hollywood shark attack fiction films, most famously Jaws.

Other prominent examples include The Thin Blue Line, an investigative documentary film about the murder of a police officer which is thought to have played a crucial role in the subsequent exoneration of the chief suspect. The critical reception to the 2013 movie Silver Linings Playbook resulted in an invitation to the White House for director David Russell and actor Bradley Cooper from the US vice president, Joe Biden, who wanted to discuss the portrayal of mental health issues in the film. As Biden explained: “Sometimes movies do what governments can’t.”

Did Everest, the movie, prompt the Nepalese government to act decisively after years of public disquiet at the loss of life had failed to elicit a suitable response? It is unlikely that there will be a clear answer. The question, however, is worth asking, because at its heart lies a belief in the power of film to facilitate change when mere political action is inadequate.

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