Journalist and photographer Sue Carpenter first met the teenage Belmaya Nepali in 2006 when Sue moved to Pokhara, Nepal for a year to run a photo project working with disadvantaged Nepali girls. Fast forward to 2013 and Sue, now a filmmaker, reconnects with Belmaya, and they begin to collaborate on a film project together. The resulting feature doc I Am Belmaya has recently been released in the UK, and has garnered huge audience love, as well as two nominations for the BIFA awards. The film, directed by Carpenter with Belmaya credited as co-director, chronicles Belmaya’s transformation from an uneducated teen bride and mother to an empowered filmmaker speaking at international film festivals about the need to educate girls. It’s a truly inspiring watch, not least for the chance to see Belmaya’s education in filmmaking unfold on screen, through her own lens. I spoke on zoom with Sue about the making of the film, and her remarkable collaboration with Belmaya, half her age and half a world away. Our chat can be seen in its entirety on youtube – below is an edited transcript.
Carol Nahra: Can you tell me about how your partnership with Belmaya evolved to her becoming co-director?
Sue Carpenter: I always wanted her to have a voice and for it not to be my film about her, but for it to be her film or at least a co-creator in some way. And I didn’t know quite how that would be. But I certainly envisioned including her footage and interweaving that with the footage of her. But a lot of the early footage we had, some of it is very very powerful, were of things going wrong in her domestic life, at the same time that she is learning and becoming more powerful in her own career. That footage was always of her. So I had to kind of root around to give her an equal and powerful voice in that first section training of the film while she was training. And we found those training videos of her with her fellow student where they are interviewing each other. And I like that because instead of the powerful director person saying “what don’t you like about your husband” (although that is probably not a question that we would ask!), her peer says “What don’t you like about your husband?” And she says “Oh I don’t like it when he drinks and smokes and gets drunk.” And it just feels so much more natural there and you feel she has agency. She is saying it because she wants to say it. She tells him she’s not gonna answer a question if she doesn’t want to. With a director-subject relationship she wouldn’t be able to say that – she would feel obliged to speak. So I tried to give her those moments in that first section. And then after the crisis point when the film really takes off more she is much more at the helm. She was taking more footage and she was making much more decisions about what to film.
CN: Will you continue to collaborate with Belmaya?
SC: Yes I very much want to. What we’ve done with this film is we’ve had lots of fundraising online screenings working with in tandem with some British charities working in Nepal. And Belmaya has had about five or six commissions through those charities saying “would she make a film about our projects?”
CN: After being a labour of love for so many years the film is out there and it has been very warmly received – what’s that like?
SC: In a way the very first review I got, which was five stars, had the biggest impact on me because I had no idea at that stage whether it was going to be received well in the industry or by anybody. I actually cried. It was a really lovely review in the UK Film Review – they actually got what it was all about. It was a relief and gratifying.
I am Belmaya is available to watch on demand on BFI Iplayer and Curzon Home Cinemas, and is screening through November at selected cinemas. See here for full details.