I Am Belmaya tells the moving and inspiring story of Belmaya Nepali, an uneducated young Nepalese woman who becomes empowered through the act of filmmaking. This compelling documentary by Sue Carpenter, co-directed by Belmaya herself, is both an intimate portrait of Belmaya and an important exploration of such universal issues as domestic violence and female education.
Belmaya is a charismatic and engaging screen presence. In a wonderfully endearing and forthright manner, she tells us her story. Belmaya grew up in a poor village in Nepal, born into a low caste family. The youngest of six children, she watched her brothers go off to school while she had to work in the fields.
“If I had continued my studies, I could have found a better job,” Belmaya explains at the beginning of the film. “Things would have been better. My life could have been different. I wouldn’t have to ask my brothers for help. I wouldn’t be married and dependent on my husband.”
When she was just 12 years old, Belmaya ran away to Pokhara, Nepal and ended up living in a girls’ home. This is where, in 2006, she met Carpenter - who was running a photography project, My World, My View, for the girls in the home.
Learning to take photographs inspired Belmaya - the experience gave her a sense of self value. “I felt I was free,” she explains. Tragically, after the project ended, the home confiscated the cameras and punished the girls.
The loss was devastating. “I’ve never found happiness,” Belmaya says in the film. “That’s how it seems. I don’t think I’ll ever find peace.” However, a second chance is on the horizon.
I Am Belmaya picks up Belmaya's story seven years after the photography project. She is given the opportunity to pursue her dreams thanks to a training course in documentary filmmaking. Carpenter puts us in the classroom with Belmaya and, in fascinating scenes, captures her learning process. Belmaya is inspired to document the lives of women in Nepal and earn her own living.
However, Belmaya’s second chance is not without its own challenges. Belmaya is now a wife and mother to a baby daughter called Bipana. Her husband, Biren, disapproves of her film studies and theirs is a troubled, sometimes violent marriage. Biren does “bad things” Belmaya reveals - so bad that the police become involved.
“I don’t want my daughter’s life to be like mine,” Belmaya explains. The trust that she has in Carpenter - who remains, for the most part, behind the camera - encourages Belmaya to share both her experiences and her fears. In an emotional scene by a lake, she tells us the heartbreaking story of her childhood.
Stuck in a world where women are considered of less value than men and given all that she has faced in her young life - poverty, discrimination, violence and 2015’s devastating earthquake in Nepal - Belmaya would be forgiven for giving up on her dreams.
It is, therefore, incredibly moving and inspiring to watch as Belmaya moves forward with her career. In wonderful scenes, we see this young filmmaker at work. I Am Belmaya’s third act is an absolute joy. “My future is here,” she says. Watch this space...
I was lucky enough to talk to director, Sue Carpenter, about her documentary. Just click here to read the fascinating story behind I Am Belmaya!