I Am Belmaya tells the inspiring and moving story of Belmaya Nepali, an uneducated young woman living in Nepal who becomes empowered through the act of filmmaking.
This is Sue Carpenter’s debut documentary feature. She first met Belmaya in 2006 when she ran a photography project, My World, My View, in a girls’ home in Pokhara where Belmaya lived.
Belmaya loved this experience. She became passionate about how photography could be used to highlight the devastating gender discrimination in her world. However, after the project ended, the home locked Belmaya’s camera away.
I Am Belmaya takes up Belmaya’s powerful story in 2014 when she gets an opportunity to train in documentary filmmaking.
I was lucky enough to talk to Carpenter about her film.
What prompted your reunion with Belmaya?
After the photography project in 2006, I intended to go back to visit the home regularly. However, the home shut its doors and wouldn’t let me see any of the girls. They didn’t want any outsiders influencing them. I think they felt that the project had been too distracting.
In 2013, I visited Nepal with my daughter who was then 13 years old. I thought the girls must have left the home by this point and wanted to get back in contact with them. Sadly, I couldn’t find most of the girls.
Some were still living under the auspices of the home and they couldn’t talk to me. Belmaya, however, had moved away. On the last day of that trip, I found her. She was living in great poverty with her husband and baby daughter in the Terai. She wanted to move on with her life but felt stuck.
Then, Belmaya contacted me to say that she had moved back to Pokhara. At the same time, I heard about a filmmaker, Rajesh Gongaju, who was teaching documentary filmmaking to poorly educated village girls like her. I put them in touch with one another and Belmaya decided to do the course.
When did you decide to make a film about Belmaya’s story?
Belmaya is such a strong character and I thought that she would be a wonderful subject for a film. Looking at all my old tapes from 2006, they are pretty much all of Belmaya because she is so compelling on camera.
I arranged to travel back to Pokhara at the same time as her course started. Once there was the potential that she would make a film herself, I wanted to follow that process.
When did you decide that Belmaya would co-direct the film?
The actual title of “co-director” came further down the line, but I always wanted the film to give Belmaya a voice. That was the whole plan.
Rajesh said that the girls he taught had started taking more responsibility for their own lives. Once they started telling other people’s stories, they discovered a different power dynamic where they stood firm and owned their lives.
I also wanted to avoid the imbalance that existed between me and Belmaya - the west versus the east, the educated versus the uneducated, the director versus the subject, the older versus the younger. This shift in the power dynamic meant that we would be equals.
It became clear when Belmaya started filming her own footage - especially the interviews that she arranged with her friend and with her husband - that she was directing part of the film herself.
I had always wanted this to be the case. If I look at my old funding documents and applications, I always wanted the interweaving of Belmaya’s and the observed footage, but I didn’t know to what extent that would be possible.
Did you ever think about being on camera yourself?
We shot some of the time with me in the frame because we didn’t know if I was going to be part of the film as the catalyst for Belmaya’s story. I didn’t want to be on camera but I did wonder whether, from a storytelling perspective, I should be on screen.
I am very pleased that the general consensus was that I shouldn’t be on camera. No one needs to see another ‘white saviour’. The film works so much better with its focus on Belmaya.
There is one moment when I am in the film - when Belmaya comes to London. I think it makes sense for me to be there because, by that stage, she is empowered and we have come together as partners.
How easy was it to film Belmaya as she worked behind the camera?
There were, of course, moments when you see our camera in front of her lens. Luckily, we had a lot of footage to work with and a little good stuff goes a long way.
What was more of a challenge was trying to match the shots in the edit - where you have Belmaya shooting and also the footage of what she is shooting. Getting that synched - making sure that it was a good shot of her shooting and that what she was shooting was also good - was quite a big challenge.
How much footage did you have to work with? Can you tell me about the editing process on I Am Belmaya?
So much! Five years worth of footage. I have approximately 12 terabytes of material which I honed down to one or two terabytes.
The edit took a long time. I started editing chunks of the film - for teasers - in 2016. I was learning about the editing process as I went along - via short films that I had made in the UK and courses.
I also worked with a really good Nepali filmmaker, Laxcha Bantawa, who lives in England and who is also in the film, helping Belmaya edit her graduation film. We sat together and went through lots of material, with Laxcha translating.
I edited the film in chunks over the five year period and then concertedly for another six months. If you put it all together, the edit probably took 12-18 months.
The pacing is impressive in I Am Belmaya and the film flows so well. How did you achieve this?
It started with having to make those tasters of the film for funding applications, and trying to edit 15 minutes of material, or 25 minutes of material. All the time, I was cutting and trimming and trying to make the story flow as smoothly as possible.
I had help along the way. My executive producers, Christopher Hird from Dartmouth Films and Bettina Kadoorie (who is a filmmaker) gave me their input and I also had help from a brilliant story consultant, Kat Reynolds, and three editor consultants. They would come in and sit with me for a day - each one had something to contribute about honing the film.
The aim was to make every second count.
I Am Belmaya’s score is wonderful. Can you tell me about how it was created?
I loved the music process. When I went to Nepal, I decided that I was going to find the top Nepali musicians who play folk instruments.
We showed a preview of the film at the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival in December 2019. On my last day there, I managed to get the top sarangi player, the top flute player and the top percussionist in Nepal into a recording studio for a day.
We used the plaintive, yearning voice of the sarangi (an instrument similar to a folk violin), to accompany the moments when Belmaya is feeling sad.
We then used the bansari (bamboo flute) to symbolise freedom and escape - when Belmaya is in the mountains or when she is filming. The flute represented her independent voice. We also used percussion instruments such as the tabla and the madal (a local folk drum).
The musicians watched the film and played along with it - each musician improvised their own cues. I brought these recordings back to the UK and gave them to film composer, Marie-Anne Fischer. She did an amazing job of drawing the music out, amplifying the space and making it cinematic, and composed her own beautiful tracks as well.
We are going to release a stand-alone album of the music from I Am Belmaya online.
The film features many powerful moments - particularly when Belmaya talks about her life and childhood.
The scene by the lakeside when Belmaya talks about her parents was key. We shot that at the very beginning when I was first reunited with her - so she is really telling me her life story. She became very emotional and we used a lot of that interview as voice-over throughout the film.
How responsible did you feel for Belmaya?
I felt completely responsible. It was really alarming and worrying when things started getting worse for Belmaya - particularly in the first six months when her husband became more abusive. Thankfully, by the time I next went out to Nepal, they had almost resolved their differences.
I was very conscious of the impact of filming Belmaya. Was our intervention exacerbating things? Or was it giving her the confidence to stand up to her husband? I believe that Belmaya gained more confidence knowing that we were there for her. That was a big responsibility.
I still do feel responsible for Belmaya. She has had such a challenging year with medical issues and then along came Covid. At the beginning of the pandemic, she couldn’t even get out to buy food for her and her daughter and they have had no money this year.
Fortunately, Belmaya has a commission from the UK Asian Film Festival to make a short film, which she is doing with my daughter Simi Carpenter, who is a singer-songwriter. The film is on the theme Ray Of Hope and celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of Satyajit Ray.
As co-director of I Am Belmaya, she has also received a percentage of the profits from private screenings of the film.
What do you hope that your audience will take away from I Am Belmaya?
I would like the audience to feel the emotion of the film and then take action. At this stage, I would love for them to follow our social media (@iambelmaya), spread the word about I Am Belmaya and help magnify the messages in the film.
I hope to continue to work alongside some charities in Nepal. However, I Am Belmaya has a broader scale - the film has a global message about the importance of education for girls and speaking out against domestic violence.
There are so many women’s rights issues involved. The film could be used as an advocacy tool. People could host a watch party of I Am Belmaya to raise awareness of these issues.
Do you have any updates about when I Am Belmaya might be released?
I hope I Am Belmaya will be available on general release in April/Maythis year. I am waiting to see if the film will be released in the cinema or just online. I am also hopeful that we will get some broadcast deals and screen the film at some festivals.
The film works both on the big and small screen. It is visually beautiful and we want it to be seen theatrically but it also does work for television because the pacing keeps you engaged.
Meanwhile, I am doing some pre-release screenings in partnership with charities and other organisations.
I would like to thank Sue Carpenter for being so generous with her time and wish her all the very best with her film.
You can find out more about I Am Belmaya by visiting the documentary's website, Belmaya.com.