The Sri Lankan premiere of the new feature documentary I Am Belmaya, directed by Sue Carpenter, was held at Barefoot Colombo on 19 February 2022.
The documentary I Am Belmaya is an incredibly inspirational piece of cinema, set in Nepal – it tells a story that has been 14 years in the making. According to Tideturner Films – the film producers – “the documentary follows an uneducated young Dalit woman’s transformational journey from subjugated wife to award-winning documentary filmmaker”.
The film has been very well received, featured in a number of film festivals, all around the world. It won “Best Documentary” at the UK Asian Film Festival and the Pame International Film Festival in Nepal. The film has also received two British independent film award nominations, and a one world media award nomination.
We had the wonderful opportunity to speak with the director of the film, Carpenter, who has been involved with Nepal and women’s rights for 20 years. She was a journalist and photographer who moved into documentary filmmaking in 2013, and then set up Tideturner Films.
She shared that she set up the production company primarily in order to make independent documentaries that spark social change. She is also a Founder Trustee of GlobalGirl Media UK, empowering young women through digital media training.
As for the subject of this documentary and her inspiration, she shared that in 2006-07 when she lived in Pokhara, running the My World, My View photo project, which is where she met Belmaya Nepali, who is the protagonist and whose life story Carpenter so delicately chronicles in the documentary.
She stated: “When I first met Belmaya, she was 14 years old and had, had a tragic, sad upbringing, with no hope really of a good life ahead of her. I taught photography to her and the other girls during that project and she absolutely loved the camera. It lit a spark in her that was different from most girls who are very shut down and submissive. She’s really sparky and feisty.”
Carpenter continued: “I remembered her for many years when we were apart, and when I met her again, she was living with an abusive husband with a tiny baby, and then once again she got the opportunity to pick up the camera again and learn filmmaking. And so I started following her as she learned filmmaking from 2014 onwards, and we filmed for five years together,” adding that she gradually became more and more confident of the camera and she became Co-Director of the film.
Carpenter shared that much of the footage is actually captured by Belmaya herself, and so it is all interwoven with the footage that Carpenter took. She said that it is definitely a story of empowerment – and she noted that while this is a biopic, what is so different is that Belmaya was a participant in telling her story. “Especially when a westerner is involved in telling somebody’s story there is a power imbalance in that relationship, but because she is able to participate and set up a lot of the shots, and by the end of it was dictating what she didn’t want in the film, or did want, she had a strong directorial voice which made it a more equal and true representation of her.”
The film has been released in the UK, only available in Europe at present. However, Carpenter noted that they are open to collaborating with Sri Lankan film distributors.