Belmaya Nepali’s life changed for ever when, at 14, she was given a camera.
The British film-maker Sue Carpenter had come to her orphanage in Pokhara, a tourist city in west Nepal, looking for girls to take part in a photography project.
“When I touched the camera for the first time I was like, what is this box? I was so curious,” she says. “Sue taught me how to click pictures. I took hundreds of pictures. I loved it. I thought, I will have better life.”
Fifteen years later, the 29-year-old single mother is an award-winning film-maker, with a documentary she co-directed about her life released in cinemas and on-demand from Friday. I am Belmaya charts the past 14 years of Nepali’s life. It’s a story of poverty, struggle and second chances.
Nepali was born into a poor Dalit family (the lowest caste, formerly known as “untouchables”) in a remote village in west Nepal. As a Dalit girl, in a patriarchal country facing caste-based and sex discrimination, the odds were already stacked against her. But when she was nine, both her parents died.
“We did not have enough food at home, and no money to buy books, so my brothers sent me to a home for orphans 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 participated in my photo project and enjoyed clicking the photos,” says Carpenter. “I found her so kind, cheerful and vocal for injustice.”
But when Carpenter left the orphanage, Nepali’s life fell apart again.
“The behaviour of the orphanage owners was not good. They used to beat us and they did not let us use the camera after Sue left,” says Nepali.
When she was 18, with little education and very few job prospects, Nepali says she had no choice but to get married. She gave birth to a daughter a year later.
She discovered her husband was an abusive alcoholic. The family struggled for money and food.
“I had to clean and wash dishes, home to home, while coping as a new mother, just for survival,” she says. “Every night he used to come home drunk and beat me, then accused me, saying that my daughter is not from him. That hurt me a lot.
“Those days I often used to think what if I had not got married, and had been given a chance to learn more about cameras?”
Nepali says she felt hopeless.
Then, in 2014, Carpenter met Nepali again. Carpenter, by now a successful film-maker, had co-founded the NGO Asha Nepal, which supports trafficked women in the country.
Carpenter began teaching Nepali documentary film-making. The pair decided to capture Nepali’s life in front of, and behind, the camera. Their footage depicts her struggles for independence in a violent home, while also showing her growing love of film-making.
But her husband did not approve.
“The journey to learning film-making was not easy for me. My husband used to accuse me of sleeping with another guy when I was out for training or shooting.
“One night my drunk husband started beating me saying I am not allowed to use my camera and make films. I could have died that night if I had not called the police,” she says.
“However, I did not stop. I kept learning, I kept filming.”
She left her husband three years ago.
Her perseverance resulted in her first short film, Educate Our Daughters, released in 2017, which highlighted the importance of girls’ education. The film won multiple awards and was selected for seven international film festivals.
“I could not say a word while receiving the award in London but back in my mind I was thinking of thousands of Nepali women like me who do not have any formal education, who got married early and were forced to give birth, then suffered domestic violence, inequality and discrimination,” says Nepali. “I wanted to tell this loudly.”
I Am Belmaya won 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 film and I’m not going to stop now. I will be making more films on the inequality, injustice and discrimination faced by Nepali women, I will be making more movies on the importance of education on empowerment,” says Nepali, who now lives with her nine-year-old daughter.
“My daughter studies in grade 3 now and I feel more proud seeing her going to school where I did not get a chance and I’m more proud being able to send her to school.
“My biggest achievement is I feel I’ve succeeded in making it to the heaven of film-making from the hell of poverty and abusive marriage.”