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‘I Am Belmaya’: When the Protagonist Tells Her Own Story

Roar writer Laura Saracino on “I Am Belmaya”, a documentary following Belmaya Nepali’s life.

Journalists, filmmakers, writers – all of them have but one purpose: to tell stories. Sometimes it takes years to find the one medium that is able to embody a story to its fullest, giving power and contours to ideas. Other times, it is the story itself that chooses the best way to be told by its very own protagonists. This is the case of “I Am Belmaya”, directed by Sue Carpenter, a 14-years in the making documentary narrating Belmaya Nepali’s life through her own eyes and life experiences.

Belmaya is a young Nepalese girl, whose life gained a renewed pulse after picking up a camera and becoming a filmmaker. In a conversation with director Sue Carpenter, we discovered how Belmaya entered the world of filmmaking and what it meant for her life, and how the intertwined stories of Sue and Belmaya are disclosed in the documentary.

“It all began with journalism”, Sue reveals. Back in 1998, she was working on an article on the situation of Nepalese refugees and that piece opened her eyes on the situation girls in Nepal were living in, and how women were so badly treated and exploited. The article led to the foundation of a charity – of which she was a trustee – in support of Nepalese women, where she witnessed the violence that raged against women in such a patriarchal and male-dominated society. She immersed herself in women’s rights and anti-trafficking so much to the extent that she went on a site visit with the charity, where she would meet and adopt her daughter. When her daughter turned six, Sue decided she wanted to be more involved with the charity as well as give her daughter a chance to grow up in her birth country and culture. So they moved to Pokhara, a resort town in the shadow of the mountains, where she worked in a hostel housing women and disadvantaged girls from neglected and problematic backgrounds. One of the girls was Belmaya.

Sue Carpenter (L) and Belmaya Nepali (R) in Nepal, 2006

In Pokhara Sue run a photo project to give girls a voice through photography and to encourage self-expression and raise their confidence. It was a huge success: the girls loved the cameras as they had never had the chance to do anything like that before, since education in Nepal is extremely repetitive and based on demanding tasks.

“Belmaya loved the camera. She grabbed it at every opportunity”, Sue recounts, and remembers how she loved taking photos; she was fearless and bold, and stood out from the other girls who stayed submissive as they were taught to be. Her extreme exuberance and her love for fun and dances meant trouble in her patriarchal society. All of a sudden, she was brooding and in a dark mood, considering her difficult and sad background, but these mood changes and complex personality were great, as one could really see her real spirit shining through.

Sue wished to make a film about Belmaya’s story but wanted to avoid treating her as a passive subject. Involving her actively in the filming process was the only way to catch the real essence and meaning of her life shown through her eyes. But it wasn’t the right time for such a film yet. Things had changed for the young girl: she was married, with a baby daughter, and she was beaten by her husband and mother-in-law. A year later, in 2014, Belmaya moved back to Pokhara to find a job: she found her spirit again.

Through Sue’s connection in Nepal, she was enrolled in a documentary filmmaking course held by Rajesh Gongaju, a filmmaker who teaches girls with a difficult backgrounds. The course felt like the photo project from years before, and Belmaya picked the camera up again. The piece that was missing for Sue to envision her documentary was finally there: following Belmaya’s process of learning with a documentary. By the end of it, it became a film within a film, as Belmaya developed a good vision and voice, and was co-director towards the end of the film shooting.


Belmaya filming boatwomen for her film “Rowing Against the Flow”

This format made it much more powerful than a classic documentary, as she talks in the first person showing her reality unfiltered and unashamed of societal judgments. As Sue said, “She wears her heart on her sleeve and she is able to show and say what she really feels and thinks”, trait even more remarkable in the setting of Nepalese culture, whose people are so private and reserved. They are able to tap rivalry and all sorts of odd feelings and behaviour into that blankness they show from the outside. But Belmaya is so unusual if she is given the chance to speak up. She got her spirit out again, and she was empowered by the process: having a crew listening to her, being able create her own film, the camera made her feel stronger. She had so much to say, and this documentary was able to bring the feeling of co-presence, where the audience can feel as if they are part of her story, feeling what Belmaya is feeling, more intimately and real than any other scripted or prepared visual content.

Belmaya, 2018

This documentary is just an example of what can become a shared experience linking audiences and protagonist, East and West, and people with different lifestyles and backgrounds. In fact, there are a plethora of activities and societies that endorse and enforce those bonds, as @globalgirlmediauk, whose aim is not just telling a story, no matter how important or moving. But the core ideal is to empower people to tell their own stories, to give them the means and the know-how of becoming independent narrators of themselves.

“I Am Belmaya” will be available on demand in UK from October 15th as well as screening in selected cinemas nationwide.

Follow the social pages to stay up to date with the latest news @iambelmaya

If you want to know more about Nepalese culture or related initiatives, follow and contact  King’s College London Nepalese Society.



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