Nevertheless, she persisted.
The first five minutes of “I Am Belmaya,” a feature documentary set in Nepal, could be a stand-alone short film. A young woman goes about her morning chores, sweeping the courtyard outside her one-room home and washing dishes at the outdoor water tap as chickens peck nearby and a rooster crows. Her face is closed; her posture speaks of drudgery and poverty. The camera then switches to street scenes in Pokhara, which lies under the stunning Annapurna Mountain. Diesel buses roar; a sidewalk barber gives a shave to a man reclining in an old-fashioned chair; and everywhere, women are engaged in backbreaking physical labor—stirring the contents of a pot at a roadside café while holding a baby with one arm, squatting on the ground to spin wool by hand, staggering as they carry impossibly heavy loads of bricks on their backs. From high above, a drone camera pans over the sprawling city and then zooms in on the tiny shack, the little courtyard, the chickens, the outdoor water faucet, and the young woman. This is Belmaya.
In a scant two minutes the young woman narrates her life story: born low caste in a poor village; orphaned by age nine; deprived of an education by brothers who thought girls were more useful working in the fields; and then, finally, some joy and hope at a boarding school for disadvantaged girls. A British woman named Sue Carpenter gave a photography workshop at the school, distributing little automatic cameras to all the girls and arranging an exhibition at the British Council in Kathmandu for the most talented ones—of whom Belmaya was one. Seven years later, Carpenter returns to Nepal and reconnects with her former protégé.
Belmaya is now 21 years old, unhappily married and the mother of a two-year-old daughter. She has not realized her ambition to become a photographer or finish high school. The school confiscated the cameras after Sue left, implementing corporal punishment that made the young girl resentful and angry. In 2006 she was full of hope for the future; but in 2014 she is mired in deep regret at not having obtained the education that would have allowed her to be independent and financially secure. Smiling sadly, she tells Carpenter that she’s never found happiness and does not expect to find peace.
The contrast between the subdued, pensive 21-year-old Belmaya of 2014 and her younger iteration, as seen in clips Carpenter filmed at the school in 2006, is stark and telling. At 14 she was a charismatic presence, laughing loudly and voicing strong opinions about the unjust position of women in her deeply patriarchal society. She loved photography, explaining that she felt free when she took pictures and that everything looked different through the camera lens. But at 21 life seems to have beaten her down.
One of the points the film makes is that Belmaya’s life could indeed have stayed stuck at the five-minute mark, in that bleak place of grinding poverty and hopelessness—but it did not. “I Am Belmaya” documents the eponymous heroine’s journey to becoming a documentary filmmaker in her own right. She achieves this with remarkable resourcefulness, resilience, and hard work, despite obstacles that include a drunken husband who beats her and the 2015 earthquake that devastated Nepal.
Over the next five years, Belmaya learns filmmaking through rigorous mentoring programs that start with learning how to use a tripod. “Practice every day for at least 30 minutes,” says the director who is teaching her the craft of filmmaking. And she does, with an expression of deep focus as she repeatedly collapses and re-opens the tripod. The film shows her learning how to do closeups and storyboards; we see her smile with pleased surprise when she is told that she has a bright mind. She shows a natural talent for conducting interviews. Gradually, as she acquires skills and knowledge, a confident, ambitious woman emerges.
The film within the film is Belmaya’s making of her first documentary, a short called “Educating Our Daughters.” In one of the most poignant scenes, while interviewing two girls at their school, she asks: “Being a woman, do you believe I will be able to make a film?” Smiling warmly at her, the two girls answer: “Of course you will! What does a girl lack?” Belmaya’s expression shows wonder at their self-confidence; one can almost hear her listing all the things she lacks.
“Educate Our Daughters” was rapturously received at the Kathmandu Film Festival. It went on to win critical acclaim and awards on the international festival circuit, and Belmaya with it. The scene of her striding confidently along a street in London, where she will present her film at the UK Asian Film Festival, can only be called triumphant. But the most brilliant success of this absorbing, touching documentary is in its telling of Belmaya’s story from her own perspective, with no hint of a white savior tale. She shares director’s credit with Sue Carpenter, in an explicit assertion that she controls her own narrative.