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An interview with director Sue Carpenter on the award-winning new film I Am Belmaya

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We spoke with Sue Carpenter, the director of I Am Belmaya which is a story 14 years in the making. I Am Belmaya follows an uneducated young Nepali woman’s transformational journey from subjugated wife to documentary filmmaker.

Sue Carpenter

How did you come to meet Belmaya and how did you approach the film initially? Could you please tell us about your process as director?

Answer: As a trustee of a UK charity that fights for women’s rights in Nepal, and the mother of a daughter 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, to get her voice out to the world, but I didn’t want her to be the passive subject. Then in 2014 she took up the camera again to train in documentary filmmaking, and I hoped if I followed the process, the traditional power roles of director-subject would switch, and she have a meaningful role in co-creating her story.

Authenticity of story and emotion is very important to me. I did some long interviews with Belmaya at the outset, which form the backbone of her early narration about her troubled past. As the film progresses, her own footage interweaves with the observed footage, allowing us an intimate insight into her world. I was always keen for her not to be painted as a victim, so even in the early part of the film where she is more vulnerable, I used her bold 2006 selfies and training videos in the edit, to give her agency throughout.

What have you learned about yourself from directing this film?

Answer: I am certainly persistent, as you have to be, to see any long-term project through to the end! I suffer from the classic imposter syndrome, and there have been periods when this film could have been shelved (such as during the earthquake of 2015). But I guess I’ve learned the same message that Belmaya always says to encourage other women, that you can do it. And if you undertake any creative work with integrity, and are open to constructive input along the way, you hopefully will create something of value.

The Premiere of the film coincided with International Day of the Girl Child. How do themes from the film relate to this day?

Answer: Belmaya’s whole life has been blighted by many issues that affect millions of girls around the world - she is Dalit (the lowest caste) and suffers from caste and gender discrimination; she was orphaned and is now a single mother, which lowers her status even further (in a patriarchal society you’re an adjunct of the man in your life - father, husband, son); early marriage and childbirth; domestic violence; and a lack of education. Education for girls is the game-changer, and it’s the subject of Belmaya’s award-winning short film Educate Our Daughters, which we see her making within I Am Belmaya. It’s the one thing that can improve personal, family and community outcomes - raising household income and health standards, lowering maternal and child mortality levels, and of course providing more personal fulfilment.

From your perspective, what were the unique challenges of filming a project that covers such a long length of time?

Answer: So many! The language barrier was difficult, only alleviated when I had the funding to have my own interpreter with me all the time. So much gets lost in translation. Also patriarchal attitudes affected my authority as director, and there were a few early wrangles! I also had to be highly aware of whether the film crew’s presence was negatively impacting Belmaya’s life. But I’ve discussed this with her many times, and 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.

How would you like viewers to feel once they have finished watching the film? Are there themes or stories that you are particularly proud of?

Answer: I always hoped that viewers would gain a unique insight into Nepali society and the hardships stacked against women, and feel motivated to spread awareness and get involved. I also hoped they’d find Belmaya as engaging and heartfelt, but also mischievous and fun, as I did, so that they’d happily spend an hour and 20 minutes in her company. Luckily that seems to be the case! The surprise star, which I have only realised after seeing the film on the big screen, is Belmaya’s charismatic daughter, who we watch growing up over 6 years. I’m very happy that the film is not all doom and gloom, but full of hope and inspiration. I’m most proud that my original vision, that Belmaya would grow in skills and confidence to make her own film, has come to fruition - and that she’s joined me on an equal footing, as co-director.

I AM BELMAYA is now in cinemas and on demand at Curzon Home Cinema and BFI Player. For more information visit the Belmya website

Check out I AM BELMAYA's trailer below