Against the snowy Annapurna Hills, rising jagged like a vision of heaven, are the green foothills of Pokhara. Here in the shadows of the Himalayas live a hill folk as colourful as the prayer flags against the hardships of rural Nepal. An underprivileged girl from this community, Belmaya Nepali was 14 when she caught the [...]


Breaking barriers in the foothills of the Himalayas

Journalist cum photographer Sue Carpenter tells Yomal Senerath-Yapa of the making of ‘I am Belmaya’ the award-winning documentary of Belmaya Nepali whose journey of empowerment has touched many hearts

A guiding hand: Sue Carpenter with Belmaya Nepali

Against the snowy Annapurna Hills, rising jagged like a vision of heaven, are the green foothills of Pokhara. Here in the shadows of the Himalayas live a hill folk as colourful as the prayer flags against the hardships of rural Nepal.

An underprivileged girl from this community, Belmaya Nepali was 14 when she caught the eye of journalist and photographer Sue Carpenter who saw in Belmaya the spark of the rebel, though probably not the young feminist she was later going to be.

‘I am Belmaya’ the film that Sue and Belmaya did jointly over 14 years, covering Belmaya’s life in Pokhara from the age of 14 to 28 won Best Documentary at the UK’s Asian Film Festival and Pame International Film Festival Nepal, and was nominated for two British Independent Film Awards and a One World Media Award in 2021.

It is the uplifting story of how the camera made an orphaned, disadvantaged girl an independent woman and filmmaker just with the power of self-expression.

Here for the film’s Sri Lankan premiere at Barefoot last Saturday, Sue Carpenter rewinded for me her first tracks up Pokhara.

Sue founded Tideturner Films with the mission of making independent documentaries, particularly those that instigate social change and turn the tide on injustices against women. She is a founder trustee of GlobalGirl Media UK, a charity that trains girls in digital media skills to change the male-dominated narrative in the media.

A picture of confidence: Belmaya filming boatwomen for her film Rowing Against the Flow

As a journalist, Sue has written for many UK national publications such as You magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, The Daily Telegraph, The Times, Daily Mail and The Guardian.

She wrote the first four editions of Courvoisier’s Book of the Best, a guide to the best hotels, restaurants and shops around the world. In 1996, following her campaigning article in the New Scientist about the crumbling city of Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, India, she founded the UK charity Jaisalmer in Jeopardy, to help save the historic fortified city.

In Nepal, she was enchanted by the hillscapes turning pink and gold as day wended, the lakes and verdure, and the apple-cheeked people living so close to the roof of the world and its gods.

She was teaching photography for a project at a children’s home when she took her first footage of young Belmaya peeking curiously into the lens, and speaking out about how she would highlight injustices through photography, dancing, and playing Holi.

Sue and Belmaya would lose contact for seven years but reconnect in 2014 when Belmaya had just embarked on her filmmaker training, this time with a cherubic little daughter strapped to her.

Says Sue, “I knew that she was a strong and charismatic character, outspoken about injustices and a natural feminist. However, there were many obstacles to smooth filming, because she was a mother…, and had a husband who was increasingly resentful about her following her own path, rather than doing as he said and being at home all the time.”

Sue was worried about Belmaya’s safety but Belmaya was “determined to continue with her work, and to stand up to her husband.”

“This created a strong story line, with the adversity of her domestic situation threatening her goal for freedom and independence as a filmmaker.”

For her people: Belmaya screening her film in her village

The husband’s attitude oscillated and simmered, from resentment at being himself ‘made to be the wife’ (Belmaya’s headstrong attempts to divorce him are included in the film) to grudging suspicion and finally sheepish capitulation. (At the Barefoot screening, the audience would often chortle at the young man’s tantrums).

Looking at her world through different angles was the catalyst in Belmaya’s education as a filmmaker. Her instructor would make her experiment with the tripod, sprawling on the ground to capture her cousin working in the chicken coop or looking down from high up at the modest dwellings where living room, dining room and kitchen was all one.

It was this play of perspectives that taught her her own worth and the unfairness of the male dominated society she had grown up in.

Her graduation film titled, ‘Educate Our Daughters’, highlighted that girls have a right to education, and that education can change everything.

‘Educate Our Daughters’ was selected for seven international film festivals and won three awards.

With it she was to go places. Under Sue and Belmaya’s joint direction ‘I am Belmaya’ tells also the story of Educate our Daughters.

‘I Am Belmaya’, candid and touching, captures the poignance of this plucky girl’s life, her father dead when young and a mentally unstable mother having slit her own throat with an axe, brought up in an orphanage, married off young and a mother before 19.

Her development is amazing to watch over the 14 years. The camera was to give her a confidence which blooms with her assignments, including a grand Gurkha regiment function where she handled the veterans with aplomb.

For Sue the most touching moments were when the footage was translated and she realized the inner strength Belmaya had developed. She was swept away by such statements as “don’t stand back thinking you can depend on someone else. Until you’ve understood yourself, don’t get married. You’re the one to look after yourself.”

Belmaya is one of the most likable people you could meet in a film and remains herself whether in London or Kathmandu, smiling with endearing stoicism. Strong and natural, she does break down sometimes but speaks out frankly and wipes her tears.

She showed her film in schools around Pokhara which “made a strong impact on the schoolgirls”, letting them know for the first time that there are endless possibilities- beyond those of marriage and childbirth.

Sue says that “after seeing her film (they) have said they are inspired to stay in school and study hard, and try and stand on their own feet before they go into marriage.”

Belmaya has also spoken twice at WOW (Women of the World) Festivals in Nepal, and led an online filmmaking workshop.

During the COVID lockdown Sue had online screenings of ‘I Am Belmaya’ around the UK, and raised over £12,000 for some 30 charities working in Nepal, while also supporting Belmaya and her daughter to continue living independently despite the loss of work for over a year.

Belmaya’s courageous journey, Sue hopes, will inspire others too.

For more and the trailer of the film see;


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