In one of the earliest and simplest forms of filmmaking, the documentary genre can be used as a tool of self-expression, allowing the filmmaker to tell any story they want, no matter how personal or controversial. In I am Belmaya, directed by Sue Carpenter and Belmaya Nepali, the camera is representative of a weapon, allowing the young Nepalese woman, Belmaya, to rise up from her oppression and seek a better life.
Giving a voice to the voiceless, I am Belmaya explores the power of film as a tool for creativity and reflection. 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 Sue 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.
We spoke to Sue Carpenter about her brand new documentary, exploring the production process as well as the state of the current film industry for female filmmakers.
Far Out: So, what inspired you to return to Nepal and tell the story of Belmaya?
Carpenter: “It was her really because she is such an amazing spirit. She’s got that natural feminism and natural way of kicking against the status quo, which most girls in Nepal don’t dare do. When I met her when she was 14, doing that photo project in Pokhara, she definitely stood out you know, she was clearly quite troubled. She’s had such a hard life, losing her parents and living on the breadline. She had a complete spirit of joy as well, she could be so full of joy when you see her dancing, wearing pink, I love those images. But she had this sort of vocal attitude, she wanted to change things.”
How did you prepare from when you first met her to when you started the film?
“I’d really intended that I would keep coming back regularly, and I thought we’d set up a great working relationship. I’d arranged for the photo project to keep going while I was away, I’d left all the cameras there and a printer and everything and they just locked everything away. So it was really sad. So I went back to Pokhara and was looking for Belmaya and I met an NGO who knew me and her and told me that she’d moved away, she got married, had a baby and moved away.
“Through a social worker, I managed to track her down to her husband’s village and we had a kind of reunion phone call that we filmed. So in 2014, she was back in Pokhara and they were looking for work, and I’d heard about this filmmaker who’s in the film who was training girls, and so I put them in touch with each other and she absolutely wanted to do that training. Then I suddenly realised, if I could follow the process, what I hoped would happen did happen. Along the way, it was much more of a roller coaster than I’d ever envisaged. I hoped that by picking up the camera again, she would be back, get that spirit back that she had when she was a teenager.”
How did you work together through the creative process? She’s credited as a co-director in the film, how did you balance your vision and hers?
“The first part of it was very much her training, so I don’t think she even thought of her long term vision about the film. She was just learning, she was doing what she was told in the process of becoming more skilled. Then more and more she was watching other documentaries and she was getting more and more, having her mind expanded to the possibilities and what she could do with that voice. Then she made her own short films, so again, I was observing, and then the technique of interweaving her footage with mine, gave her more of her control and her participation throughout.
“So then it was around that stage once she’d started making her own films that we were collaborating more and we discussed how we could make the arc of the film work and how we’d finally end up. We thought it would be with her village screening, and that would be a nice rounded arc that she went through all these hardships and struggles, then she became empowered through telling her story about education. Then after the village screening, we put it in for KIMFF, the Kathmandu Film Festival, and when she got into that obviously then that became another thing to rise up. It just was an evolving process. Each stage led to another thing and then there was a new summit to our film.”
Did you find any particular resistance to that from her family or community, considering it was quite a personal story?
“Her husband agreed to it at the beginning, but again in much the same way as Belmaya, like, ‘okay, we’re going to do this thing, and let’s see what happens’. He agreed to everything, but the big thing that he did not agree to was having the police scene shown in Nepal but he agreed to it internationally. He said, as long as it’s not shown in Nepal, then he didn’t mind. So there’s a different version for Nepal.
“It’s a very difficult world that she lives in and she’s quite exposed and vulnerable as a single mother because that is still stigmatised in Nepal. The film is being used much more as a tool in Nepal to promote women’s rights and girls education, there’s an implicit sense of anti-domestic violence, but it’s not explicit.
With themes like that to navigate, was the editing process a long and complicated one?
“I’ve got 12 terabytes-worth of material, some of it I haven’t even started to translate because it was basically an awful lot up in the village where Belmaya and the crew were filming other villages and we just realised that was never going to make the final cut because it’s too much with the two clear threads of Bell Myers personal home life and the obstacles of her emancipation through filmmaking.
“Then even within the story we’ve got loads more material, there was more bad stuff and sad stuff with the husband and there was more lovely filmmaking stuff but we just chose the kind of representative nuggets that really said it all.”
How do you see current opportunities for female filmmakers at the moment? On a bigger scale of mainstream and independent filmmaking can you recognise any change at all?
“I think in the West generally we’re very much wanting to promote women’s voices. I just see it more and more that women’s voices are really valued and important, then I know if you step back from that, looking at feature films, there’s still only sort of 20% or less of women on the crew and women directors, but I still think it is growing.
“I think there’s much more understanding that the old pale, stale, white male thing, you can’t carry on with them leading all the time. I think more diverse and more female voices are coming through, and it’s being little by little reflected in the Oscars in the BAFTAs. But I think in the field of documentary it’s always been a bit easier for women because you can do things on quite a low budget.”
As a form of self-expression, documentaries are particularly important for elevating those voices. Were there any female filmmakers that you showed, Belmaya, or any particular documentaries that you showed her?
“I haven’t actually had the time to just sit down to say ‘hey, let’s watch some films together’. So no, but the local filmmaker showed her quite a lot of films. That very first one she saw where it was a woman whose sister was an aloe cloth weaver and she says within the film that they’re watching, ‘I used to go and help her and carry all the stuff and now I’m making a film about her’. I think through seeing that, those kinds of things really inspired Belmaya along the way and I can see that she’s having that same role now and she’s inspiring others to think, ‘I had no education, no prospects, but she didn’t, and look what she’s done’. I can do it too.”
In such an inspiring tale of aspiration, what would be the message that you’d want audiences to take away from the film?
“I think it’s always in the doing that you become more confident and I’ve learned that for myself as well. Don’t be fearful of how it should be done. Belmaya hasn’t had that much education, she’s almost not that fearful of how to do things, it’s more that she hasn’t had the opportunity or the money or the gear to be able to do things. She gets in, she’s fearless. So, you know, just get on and do it.
“How do you get experience without doing the things and becoming an experienced person? I think do it, just do it, is really the big message for the filmmaking side, and then the messages within the film are to stand up to your bullies like Belmaya did and don’t be fearful. Just try and stand up and speak out. Speak your truth and keep working. Keep doggedly persevering and you’ll get to whatever you want to do. You can do it.”
I am Belmaya is available on-demand in the UK. Click here to find out about other screenings around the UK and beyond.