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I am Belmaya

Belmaya Nepali has achieved more than she could ever have imagined; from being born into a poor Dalit family to becoming a popular documentary filmmaker. The credit for her popularity goes to her first short film: Educate Our Daughters, a personal documentary on the importance of education for girls. It won the Short Film Competition at the UK Asian Film Festival 2019.

The sixth and youngest child, Belmaya was orphaned at the age of nine. She missed her early schooling and ended up in a girl’s home in Pokhara. “One day my teacher mocked me saying that my brain was filled with cow dung. I was so hurt that I dropped out of school,” she recalls. She was introduced to a camera at the age of 14 and participated in two photo exhibitions in British Council during the nine months long photography project.

Unfortunately, her happiness did not remain for long as her camera was taken away by her family, and she did not get chance to use it for the next seven years. At 21, she got the opportunity to enroll in documentary film making training. And that training changed her life.

She made the film, Educate Our Daughters in 2016 and it was screened at the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival (KIMFF) in 2017. Her second short film, Rowing Against the Flow, on the boatwomen of Pokhara for Thomson Reuters Foundation was also selected for KIMFF in 2018. She has participated in photo exhibitions at the British Council in Nepal and the Royal College of Art in London. Her work was included in the book, My World, My View.

Belmaya who was married at the age of 19, has a seven year old daughter. She was one among the many motivational women to share her experience at the 2018 and 2019 WOW Festival. She is also the Co-Director and the subject of Sue Carpenter’s feature documentary, I Am Belmaya which follows her inspiring journey into filmmaking. The film was shown at KIMFF 2019.

In a conversation with WOW’s Pabita Dahal, the courageous lady shares her experience and life journey. Excerpts:

How did you get drawn into film making?

I got the opportunity to participate in the photo project that was led by Sue Carpenter, a UK based media personality and documentary filmmaker at the age of 14 when I was in the girl’s home in Pokhara. I enjoyed holding the camera and clicking photos but never thought that I would step into film making. Seven years later, I again got the chance to hold a camera to pursue my interest when Sue came searching for me. She found, encouraged and also arranged a film making trainer for me. I worked hard and it resulted with my graduation film, Educate Our Daughters in 2016.

Filmmaking was my aim. I always wanted to achieve something. I wanted to be independent.

Why did you choose to do your graduation project on education?

I have faced many hurdles due to lack of education. I know how it feels to be alone among friends, how society treats the uneducated. I know how it feels when you land a menial job and you see your educated friends reach the next level. Acknowledging the importance of education, I wanted to motivate young women in our country.

Why did you want to show your film in your village?

In my village the perception that ‘girls should not go out and work’ still exists, I wanted to change that. I wanted to inspire girls to get educated, work and encourage them to follow their passion. Secondly, my brother challenged me saying that I would not achieve anything holding a camera and wearing boyish clothes. He wanted to stop me but I resisted. I wanted to witness his reaction after showing my work. And I am proud and happy that my brother and the villagers admired my work.

How did you feel when you revisited your life through Sue Carpenter’s documentary film I am Belmaya?

I became nostalgic about those days. It was so emotional. It was also difficult to believe that I was that Belmaya. It was also a moment of happiness because I got the chance to evaluate and revisit my life. While watching the film, I realised that despite all the hardships I have lived my life to the fullest. I got to learn more about myself, I got to know my potentials. It was also an inspiration. With a film based on my life, I now know that I can create films about others and our society.

What is your driving force?

It is the hunger for independence that keeps me going ahead in any situation.

To whom do you credit your success?

Sue Carpenter is the cornerstone of all my success. She inspired me, encouraged me and provided me with an opportunity. She is the first and foremost character whom I am grateful to.

Another person is me. I never gave up. It was very challenging for me to continue my training with a small daughter and without the support of my family. I even tolerated physical abuse from my husband. I remained perseverant remembering that it was my personal growth, and I achieved it.

What were the toughest challenges?

During training I had no one to take care of my daughter and I was compelled to request my neighbours to take care of her since I could not take her with me to the jungle and high hills. There was no family support, instead my husband accused me of having extramarital affairs. I also went through financial crisis.

How has filmmaking changed your life?

When I started training, I received criticism. I was then admired for proving them wrong. With filmmaking I have encountered a developed version of myself. I have gained self-confidence and become more social. Filmmaking has given me recognition, identity, satisfaction and respect. I am thankful for all the appreciation but I am a reserved person and I am happy with my simple life.

What would you like to convey through your films next?

I want to make one film on domestic violence. Whatever I make, it will be centered on women issues. I will leave the message of women empowerment through all of my films.

What was your experience of the UK film festival award?

I did not know that my film was screened and selected for the award when I went to London. Sue Carpenter invited me to London to visit her. She and her daughter had planned a surprise for me. Even during the film festival, I did not know about the award. People recognised me and called my name, I was astonished that they knew me. Some days later, I knew that my film was screened at the festival but was not aware of the award. It was a nice surprise when my film received the award. I am very appreciative of the organiser and Sue Carpenter.

What are you working on now?

I am working on another documentary film in collaboration with one of UK’s documentary filmmakers that focuses on single mothers. We will include the story of three single mothers from different parts of the country: the hills, the Himalayas and the Terai. We will begin work in three months. Currently, I am working as a sweet supplier to fulfill my daily needs.

What would you like your daughter to be?

First of all, I want her to study well and follow her dream. If she wishes to fulfill my dreams, I want her to become a journalist. I always wanted to be a journalist and I want to live my dream through my daughter.