Orphaned at 8, destitute and abused, this Nepalese girl had only big dreams… 15 years later, she has become an international award-winning filmmaker. By Sue Carpenter, who first met Belmaya Nepali in 2006 for YOU magazine.
At WOW (Women of the World) Festival in Kathmandu, Nepal, a young woman climbs on to the stage. Born in a poor hill village in the west of the country and barely literate, she grips the microphone, shaking at the prospect of speaking in public. But as she begins to tell her tale – of being orphaned and half-starved as a girl; of being beaten by her drunken husband – the crowd falls silent, spellbound.
What is remarkable is not just the hardships and tragedy this 28-year-old woman has endured but how, through taking up a camera, she has transcended them. Thanks to her powerful, authentic voice, she is now an international, award-winning filmmaker, feted at festivals from London to Toronto.
Her story has been charted over 14 years for a new feature documentary I Am Belmaya, which has just been released in honour of the United Nations International Day of the Girl Child on 11 October. Fittingly, Belmaya Nepali is not only the subject of the film but also the co-director.
It’s an achievement she couldn’t have begun to imagine as a child. Her problems started in 2000, when Belmaya’s beloved father died, closely followed by her mother. Previously an unruly but carefree child, running barefoot around her village, eight-year-old Belmaya’s life imploded that day. Brought up haphazardly from then on by her four elder brothers and one sister, what little food they could muster would go to the boys first. Belmaya often went hungry. Some days she’d shin up a neighbour’s tree to steal plums.
She missed out on years of school because she had to cut grass for the family’s cow, or gather firewood from the forest, lugging heavy loads in a bamboo basket on her back. When she did turn up at school one day, her teacher mocked her for having ‘a brain filled with cow dung’. She dropped out again. Not that her brothers cared. Educating girls is a low priority in much of Nepal, particularly for poor Dalit (low caste) families such as Belmaya’s ‒ girls soon marry and belong to their husband’s family, so why invest in their education? Desperate to escape her struggles, Belmaya ran away and ended up in a home for girls in the city of Pokhara.
My links with Nepal date back to a commission from YOU magazine to write about a women’s refuge in Kathmandu. It was a story that led to my co-founding a UK charity, Asha Nepal, to fight against exploitation of women in Nepal. In 2006, I went to Pokhara to lead a photography project teaching Nepalese girls from disadvantaged backgrounds ‒ some homeless, some orphaned, most suffering from neglect and a lack of education. It was there that I first met Belmaya.
She stood out immediately. While the other girls had learnt to be demure and compliant, as society decreed, Belmaya was an edgy teenager who couldn’t keep her mouth shut if she felt something strongly. ‘I want to be a photographer!’ she would proclaim. ‘I’d show how girls have suffered… breaking up stones, cutting firewood, while boys sit comfortably and order girls about.’
And yet she had this irrepressible spirit of joy. Wearing her favourite colour of shocking pink, her dark eyes flashing, she’d grab the camera, getting up close to her subject and firing off dozens of shots. She’d regularly turn the lens on herself ‒ long before the selfie, and there was no screen to pose in front of. This trove of bold and quirky images would, 15 years later, help to tell her story and reveal her individuality in I Am Belmaya.
But beneath her exuberance lay a brooding neediness. It wasn’t until the day I left that I saw her full vulnerability. She broke down in uncontrollable tears. I had offered her a lifeline, valued her and her achievements, and now I was leaving. It was heartbreaking.
Things got worse. After I left, the home shut its doors to outsiders and locked away the girls’ cameras. No more volunteers, no more visitors, no more contact. Was it because the girls had tasted freedom of expression, instead of obediently poring over their books? Neither Belmaya nor I ever found out, but she told me years later that life became untenable again. With outsiders’ prying eyes banished, the staff would beat the girls if they didn’t do their chores or perform well in their studies.
In 2013 I went back to find the girls, hoping that by now they had left the home. To my dismay, most of them were still under the control of the home and couldn’t speak to me. Belmaya, however, had moved away. I finally tracked her down through a social worker. Through the hiss of his mobile phone, her voice came through, earthy and unmistakable. But I was not prepared for the photos he sent. They showed Belmaya, veiled, limp and emaciated, standing by a thatched hut, a baby girl clutched to her side. She was married and living in dire poverty in her husband’s remote village. She had escaped one abusive situation for yet another, suffering at the hands of both her husband and mother-in-law.
The following year, however, the young family moved back to Pokhara to seek work. At that time, I heard about a local Nepali filmmaker, who was training semi-literate girls like Belmaya to tell their stories through film. I put the pair in touch. Here was another lifeline and Belmaya grasped it. Using a further education fund created from the photo project, she embarked on the documentary filmmaking training.
I loved that it picked up the baton from the photo project, giving her the tools to tell her own story from her point of view. We agreed that, as a filmmaker myself, I would capture the process as she took up the camera again, hoping to witness her grow in skills and the confidence to make her own film.
When we next met it was in her rented room, a windowless concrete box with a roll-down garage door that either exposed their entire life to the street or plunged them into darkness. She was meek and polite, and in the lightbulb-lit gloom my heart sank. Later, when we moved to the bright rooftop to film our conversation, she gradually opened up. There was so much to catch up on and understand.
Failing at school, Belmaya had gone to a vocational training centre, where she met her husband. She’d hoped marriage would improve her life, but it only got worse. ‘I’ve never seen happiness,’ she said, her eyes black and lifeless, ‘and I’ve given up on finding it.’
I asked what her dream would be. ‘If I’d studied more,’ she said, ‘I could have got a better job. I wouldn’t have to be dependent on my husband and brothers.’ That’s what she wanted above all: independence.
Within days of her picking up the camera again, I saw sparks of her old self. ‘All the struggles women go through, I want to show these,’ she announced. ‘I want to stand on my own feet.’
But, as her fighting spirit revived, so the domestic abuse became worse. Despite approving the training and the documentary, her husband became increasingly resentful of his wife spending time out of the home. Our cameras bore witness as the friction led to a dramatic crisis. It was a turning point for both Belmaya and the film.
Against all odds, Belmaya emerged stronger and her husband an apparently reformed man, looking after their daughter while his wife took filming jobs. Key to her empowerment was the completion of her film, Educate Our Daughters. In it, she confronts her past and explores the issue of girls’ education with a raw honesty that has captured hearts around the world.
That film has proved the biggest turning point in her life. When she screened it to her village at a magical pop-up cinema, her most revered brother – who had hitherto scorned her endeavours – said, with tears in his eyes, ‘Wow! You’ve done it!’
It meant so much to Belmaya ‒ but more was to come. The film was selected for the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival, the peak of achievement for Nepalese filmmakers. When asked how filmmaking had affected her life, Belmaya said, ‘Now I only focus on how to move forward.’
And move forward she did. In 2019, she was invited to the UK Asian Film Festival, where her film was in competition. Leaving her daughter in her sister’s care, she boarded the plane in a state of nervous excitement – it was her first time ever out of the country. A week of screenings culminated at the grand awards ceremony at BAFTA in London. Shaking, Belmaya gripped my hand as we awaited the announcement: ‘This year’s winner of the Short Film Competition has flown here from Nepal…’ She really had done it! The village girl with no future was now an international award-winning filmmaker.
Belmaya and daughter Bipana, now nine, live simply in one room in Pokhara (when her husband returned to his old ways, she had the courage to separate from him). She has achieved her longed-for independence, surviving the pandemic on income from her film Stronger, a film commission by the UK Asian Film Festival. Bipana attends a good school, and during lockdown has been able to study online via Belmaya’s phone.
The pandemic has held an unexpected silver lining. Through charity online screenings of I Am Belmaya we’ve raised over £12,000 for projects in Nepal and two years’ income for Belmaya as co-director. She has made connections that have led to film commissions for non-governmental organisations, online English lessons and an online filmmaking workshop for young women in Nepal, which she led with amazing aplomb. Belmaya has become a source of inspiration and hope for many women like her.
At the end of her WOW Festival talk, Belmaya told the audience, ‘I feel very proud because despite coming from a Dalit family, where I was discriminated against in my own village, I have come so far today.’ She is all too aware, though, that thousands of girls in Nepal have not had opportunities to change their lives. Since the start of the pandemic, with schools either shut or teaching online, many more girls are missing vital years of education.
Belmaya’s crusade is to inspire a new generation of girls to achieve their dreams. ‘They’ll feel inside, “I can do it if I do it with all my heart” ‒ but they still can’t, because they have obligations. In our culture, we make girls get married at a young age. I tell them, “Let’s not. With all your goals and talents, go forward! You can do it!”’
I Am Belmaya is in cinemas now and available on demand via Curzon Home Cinema and BFI Player.