Cinema, in its purest form, is a medium of self-expression in which filmmakers across cultures can provide their perspective of the world around them in either narrative or factual filmmaking. The language of the art itself breaks down such cultural barriers and allows for a singular dialect to take hold, making personal stories of oppression and suffering ones that can be appreciated by anyone and everyone.
Such provided the basis for Sue Carpenter and Belmaya Nepali’s compelling documentary, I am Belmaya, a documentary that gives a voice to the voiceless and explores the power of film as a tool of self-expression. Co-director Belmaya is also the titular subject of the film itself, with her life story as a silenced and subjugated young Dalit woman in Nepal explored and chronicled by Carpenter.
Having visited Belmaya when she was just 14 living in Pokhara, Carpenter worked with Belmaya and other local girls on a photo project that allowed each of them to express their creativity. Standing out as a particularly gifted young girl, Carpenter returned seven years later to find Belmaya, who had since moved away, gotten married and had a child. With an early gift for visual storytelling, the director worked with Belmaya and a local filmmaker to develop her skills in the industry and aid in the production of her very first documentary.
An inspiring, deeply personal tale of human endeavour in the face of harsh oppression, I am Belmaya is a meditative experience that holds up a viewfinder to the lives of those who too often go forgotten. Exploring everyday life in Pokhara and the surrounding areas, we follow Belmaya as she progresses from wary, curious creative to flourishing filmmaker, documenting her life with her baby daughter in charming detail.
Clocking in at under the 90-minute mark, Belmaya’s story could’ve been given a little more space to breathe, often feeling fast-tracked and stunted by the limits of the documentary itself. As a genuine creative voice, her vision often gets jumbled with director Sue Carpenter’s, consequently making the two indistinguishable. Their mission is to tell the same story, though the two approaches of telling this story don’t always align.
What the two perspectives certainly do tap into is the rebellious and ruthless desire to create, even despite pushback from outside influences. With a strong throughline of female empowerment, both filmmakers present the camera as a weapon for change and as an outlet for personal creative expression. It’s this representation that gets I am Belmaya back to the root of documentary filmmaking, creating an autobiographical account of personal reflection that acts as a pensive source of change for the central subject.
Whilst certainly a personal piece of filmmaking, I am Belmaya also speaks to a wider message of self-confidence and faith, particularly in the face of your adversaries. As Sue Carpenter told us in a recent interview, “I think it’s always in the doing, you become more confident…don’t be fearful of how it should be done”.