Belmaya Nepali’s life changed forever when, at age 14, she was given a camera.
British director Sue Carpenter had come to her orphanage in Pokhara, a tourist town in western Nepal, looking for girls to participate in a photographic project.
“When I first touched the camera, I thought to myself, what is this box? I was so curious, ”she says. “Sue taught me to click pictures. I took hundreds of photos. I liked it. I thought I would have a better life.
Fifteen years later, the 29-year-old single mother is an award-winning filmmaker, with a documentary she co-directed about her life released in theaters and on demand starting Friday. I am Belmaya traces the last 14 years of the life of a Nepalese. It is a story of poverty, struggle and second chance.
Nepali was born into a poor Dalit family (the lowest caste, formerly known as the “untouchables”) in a remote village in western Nepal. As a Dalit girl, in a patriarchal country facing caste and gender discrimination, the odds were already stacked against her. But when she was nine, both of her parents died.
“We didn’t have enough food at home and no money to buy books, so my brothers sent me to an orphan home in Pokhara,” says Nepali.
It was there, in 2006, that she met Carpenter, who co-directed and produced I am Belmaya.
“Belmaya was 14 when we first met. She was one of 20 girls who took part in my photo project and loved clicking through the photos, ”says Carpenter. “I found her so sweet, happy and vocal for injustice.”
But when Carpenter left the orphanage, Nepali’s life fell apart again.
“The behavior of the owners of the orphanage was not good. They beat us and wouldn’t let us use the camera after Sue left, ”says Nepali.
When she was 18, with little education and very few job prospects, Nepali said she had no choice but to get married. She gave birth to a daughter a year later.
She found out that her husband was a violent alcoholic. The family struggled for money and food.
“I had to clean and wash the dishes, house to house, while coping as a new mother, just to survive,” she says. “Every night he would come home drunk and beat me, then blame me saying that my daughter was not his. It hurt me very badly.
“These days I often thought what if I hadn’t gotten married and given the chance to learn more about cameras?” “
Nepali said she felt hopeless.
Then, in 2014, Carpenter met Nepalese again. Carpenter, now a successful filmmaker, co-founded the NGO Asha Nepal, which supports trafficked women in the country.
Carpenter began teaching Nepalese documentary filmmaking. The couple decided to capture Nepali’s life in front of and behind the camera. Their images show her struggles for independence in a violent household, while also showing her growing love for cinema.
But her husband did not approve.
“The path to learning cinema was not easy for me. My husband used to accuse me of sleeping with another guy when I was out practicing or shooting.
“One night my drunken husband started beating me saying that I was not allowed to use my camera and make movies. I could have died that night if I hadn’t called the police, ”she says.
“However, I didn’t stop. I continued to learn, I continued to film.
She left her husband three years ago.
Her persistence culminated in her first short, Educate Our Daughters, released in 2017, which emphasized the importance of educating girls. The film won several awards and was selected for seven international film festivals.
“I couldn’t say a word when I received the award in London, but in my mind I thought of thousands of Nepalese women like me who have no formal education, who got married early and were forced to leave. ‘give birth, then suffered from domestic life. violence, inequality and discrimination, ”says Nepali. “I wanted to say it loud and clear. “
I Am Belmaya won the award for best documentary at the UK Asian Film Festival, an award of excellence at the WRPN Women’s International film festival and was nominated for a One World Media award.
“This is not my last movie and I’m not going to stop now. I will make more films about the inequalities, injustice and discrimination faced by Nepalese women, I will make more films about the importance of education for empowerment, ”says Nepali, who now lives with her daughter. nine years old.
“My daughter is in grade 3 now and I’m more proud to see her go to school where I didn’t have the chance and I’m more proud to be able to send her to school.
“My greatest achievement is that I feel like I have made it to cinema heaven after the hell of poverty and abusive marriages.”