Following the success of her powerful and eye-opening documentary film, including a win for Best Documentary at the UK Asian Film Festival 2021 (UKAFF), I speak to talented documentary filmmaker, Sue Carpenter, about the narrative and creative process behind I Am Belmaya – a moving story of a Nepalese orphan who fights the patriarchal society she was born into, for her right to educate herself and chase her dreams.
|How did you first meet Belmaya and what spurred you to direct this film?|
As a trustee of a UK charity that fights for women’s rights in Nepal, and the mother of a daughter (Simi), adopted from Nepal, I wanted to spend some time living there. In 2006-7 I ran a photo project in a girls’ home in Pokhara, west Nepal, and that’s where I met Belmaya. At 14, she was unusually feisty, a natural feminist. After I left, we didn’t meet for 7 years, but I heard she’d got married to an abusive husband and had a baby daughter. I’d wanted to make a documentary featuring her, because she was so charismatic and had such a powerful voice which I wanted to get out to the world. But I didn’t want her to be the passive subject, so I shelved the idea for some time. Then in 2014 she took up the camera again to train in documentary filmmaking, and we agreed I would follow the process.
How did you go about approaching the direction for filming? Did you face any initial roadblocks?
I started off with interviews with Belmaya to understand what had happened to her since we last saw each. Those early interviews formed the spine of a lot of the narrative (much of it used in the form of voiceover, as part of Belmaya’s narration of her story). Aside from that, I mainly wanted to observe Belmaya as she learned filmmaking.
As I couldn’t be there all the time, I employed a local unit to film the training. I found patriarchal attitudes affected my authority as director, and there were a few early wrangles with one of the early people I worked with – to the point that we had to part ways ultimately. I took on a different crew after the earthquake hiatus – which was a more harmonious experience, working together much more as a close-knit team – and of course Belmaya had grown in skills by then, so she was part of the team, on an equal footing, rather than just the subject.
How long did it take to shoot and edit the film?
We started filming in March 2014, and finished five years later. There were gaps in between, notably the year and a half from April 2015, when the earthquake struck. A lot of the editing has been done along the way, starting in 2015 when we were unable to continue production because of the earthquake. So that too has been a long process. After the final shoot in April 2019, it took another 4-6 months translating and editing, and during the Covid year, 2020, another 6 months of fine-tuning, and working with the composer, sound editor and colourist. We finally completed in October 2020.
What challenges did you face filming? Did it affect your shooting schedule?
So many! The language barrier was the most difficult, only alleviated when I had the funding to have my own interpreter with me all the time. So much gets lost in translation, and I am very detail-orientated and like to know what’s going on!
The 2015 earthquake came right in the middle of shooting – just as Belmaya’s training was supposed to be leading to her graduation film. So she didn’t finish her film, and we couldn’t continue filming her story. Everything ground to a halt. It was very worrying, obviously, and it was another year and a half before I could return. But in fact Belmaya’s home life had become more harmonious over that time, and by late 2016, she and her husband were in a better situation for Belmaya to forge forwards with finishing her film about the importance of education for girls.
Did you need to consider the impact on Belmaya’s safety within her community and family life owing to the issues raised?
Yes indeed. I had to be highly aware of whether the film crew’s presence was negatively impacting Belmaya’s life, and whether her trying to pursue her dream was causing the unrest at home. But I’ve discussed this with her many times. Her filmmaking, and the support of me and the film crew, gave her the confidence and courage to stand up to her husband – and of course when you stand up to your abuser, that is always going to cause friction. She maintains that both the training and the fact that her story was being valued and witnessed gave her the strength to make change in her life.
Were there any surprising benefits presented whilst filming? Anything you will take away for future reference?
The production trips were really quite hard and intense work, and I always had jam-packed agendas with an overloaded list of things to achieve. It’s also a constant responsibility on one’s shoulders. But I enjoyed the camaraderie when everything was going well, and the downtime after a full day’s shooting! I suppose my main takeaway is, before you embark, to spend time with your team, get to know them, be really sure you’re all on the same page, and then to go for it as an equal team and trust each other. We also had lots of laughs, and of course that’s really important and bonding.
Did you have a favourite moment during filming?
Whenever there’s serendipity and flow, and the subject has mental energy and enthusiasm, it’s exhilarating and rewarding. Seeing Belmaya brimming with confidence and focus, and pushing ahead with her agenda, was great to watch – eg when she was making the boatwomen film. Showing her film in her village was a magical evening, where everything came together beautifully. I loved following the kids who were parading around the village announcing her film screening at our pop-up cinema, which they called ‘Belmaya’s cinema hall’. Everyone was so excited, and it looked just as I’d envisaged and hoped, a twinkling grotto of flickering candles and delighted faces.
How did the narrative of the film resonate with you and your own journey?
Actually, Belmaya and my lives mirror each other in quite a lot of ways. Of course externally we seem very different – her younger, uneducated, Dalit, financially poor; me older, white privileged, relatively wealthy, and yet, we both have lacked confidence in our abilities, and I had a relatively uninspiring education compared to my brothers’, who both went to a good public school and Oxford. So during the course of the film, we both learned skills, and in the doing and achieving, gained confidence and stood up for ourselves more. Many of the messages in the film have universal resonance.
In what way will screening the film at UKAFF and beyond be beneficial to the film’s message? Why is it important?
We screened at UKAFF in June, and it was our first public screening in a cinema – though unfortunately, because it was very soon after cinemas opened after Covid, there were very restricted numbers. But the most brilliant thing is that among an excellent line-up, I Am Belmaya won Best Documentary. That gave us a huge boost, and cemented the feedback that we were getting from audiences, that this really is a film that has value and impact.
What impact do you think the film will have on the community in Nepal?
We haven’t released the film officially in Nepal yet, so the main impact has yet to be realised, but I am very confident that it will make a big mark and spark positive change in communities. It’s been shown at Kimff (Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival) and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. People felt inspired by Belmaya, that if she could overcome her tremendous disadvantages and traumas, and come out smiling and triumphant, so should they persevere and keep striving for their dreams. We aim to show the film more widely in remote areas of Nepal, and work alongside NGOs, to highlight messages about the importance of educating girls, anti gender-based violence, the value of gender equality. We are confident that we can be part of the change in society.
What was it like to see Belmaya follow in your footsteps to produce her own well received short films?
It’s been wonderful championing her and seeing her successes, and she got a fantastic commission from UKAFF to make a short film during this past year, Stronger (which she made in collaboration with my daughter, Simi Carpenter, who wrote an original song of the same title, around which Belmaya created her visual narrative). It was not only stimulating for her, but helped her to remain financially independent during the Covid year when she had no other work.
Where do you hope this film will lead you?
All my focus at this stage is on making this film as successful and far-reaching as possible, and maximising our social impact plans. But of course it’s fantastic that the film has been so well-received by audiences. We have also received a few accolades on the festival circuit, we were nominated for a One World Media Award, and have just received two British Independent Film Award nominations! So of course it would be wonderful to get an award, as it’s just so affirming to be recognised by industry judges. And each success opens doors for future projects.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
I will continue to work with Belmaya for the foreseeable future, because so many people are invested in her emotionally and want to see what she is going to make next. I have a rough plan to build production capacity in Nepal, so that Belmaya can take on the short film commissions she’s been getting from international charities that work in Nepal, among other projects, and make them in Nepal rather than my producing them from UK. I would operate more in an executive producer role, and help develop and distribute the films. As for my own personal work, I’m not sure yet what’s next… watch this space!
Details about this film can be found at www.belmaya.com, including details of screenings. I Am Belmaya is available online on demand (no subscription needed) at Curzon Home Cinema and BFI Player. Follow news and upcoming festivals and projects Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. For non-Belmaya related work, check out www.suecarpenter.co.uk and Sue’s Vimeo channel.