In recent years we have been treated to a feast of films focusing on strong, young women who are bucking the trend and breaking the mould of societal and cultural norms; young women who refuse to be reined in by their sex and shackled by the view that the male dominated world which surrounds them has placed on them. From He Named Me Malala (2015) to The Eagle Huntress (2016) and the newly released I Am Greta (2020) we see that young women are taking charge of their own destinies and educating the old world order on what can be achieved if we allow every human being their own opportunity of becoming. Now we can add to this list the superb portrait of a young Nepali woman lifting herself out of subjugation through the means of photography and film-making, I Am Belmaya.
Belmaya comes from a low caste in a small Nepalese village and after the tragic death of her parents she is largely ignored by her brothers and left to do the ‘female duties’ which she will be tied to for the rest of her life. Denied an education by her family she runs away to a bigger town and ends up in a girls’ home in Pokhara, where she is the eldest child in her class and gets picked on and called ‘elephant’ by the others. In 2006 her life changes when Sue Carpenter visits Nepal and offers the girls an opportunity to participate in the My World, My View project, where Belmaya gets to pick up a camera for the first time.
Sadly, the limitations and prejudices of society rushed back in once the project was over and Belmaya’s camera was taken away from her by those who were supposed to be offering support. Sue Carpenter, however, was not finished with Belmaya’s story and after becoming so enamoured by the young teenager’s spirit, tenacity, outspokenness and ability with the camera, she returned to Nepal in 2014 to see how her protege was faring. This is where we pick up the story, with Belmaya now twenty-one, married and mother to a young daughter. She has fallen into the structural trap of her supposed place in the world; marrying young, having a child and losing all of her opportunities for a life of her own choosing; that is until she enrolls in a film-making class and once again finds herself behind the lens.
Belmaya’s story is one of hardship and oppression, which we get to witness first-hand in a very intimate portrayal. We are right alongside her as she struggles to overcome the prejudice of the caste system, the limits of her education and the violent misogyny of her husband. We encounter the harsh reality of life for many Nepalese women and are party to the everyday inequalities that are endured as ‘the way of things’. Belmaya shares her frustrations and her family life with the camera and invites us to see into her world with a breathtaking vision of honesty and truth. We watch as this leads her to find her own path and informs the kind of film-maker she will eventually grow to become.
This also makes Belmaya’s story one of hope and redemption as she lifts herself time and again from where she has been placed by society and etches out images of triumph and beauty through her life and her camera lens. Watching her journey allows us to share in life-affirming actions and to believe that anything is possible through hard work and determination. There is a raw genuineness underlined by Belmaya’s story that transcends culture and geography and offers a universal feeling of authenticity which lifts all who witness it.
Spending time with Belmaya is a unique experience, one which shifts this documentary into new ground, where it grows along with her into something more akin to a biopic or a character study. We feel the highs and lows, travel into the unknown, and take leaps of faith across societal boundaries and through glass ceilings every step of the way with her. As one audience member at a film festival screening observes, ‘It is rare to see a film-maker whose life experience so closely mirrors the subject they are filming,’ and it is that honest, true-to-life portrayal that Belmaya shares with us throughout the film; something we should all be glad to experience with her.