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JJ Barnes The Table Read

Written by JJ Barnes

I interviewed filmmaker Sue Carpenter about her career, what inspires her, and her latest project, I Am Belmaya.

Tell me a bit about yourself.

My main career was in print journalism and travel photography. Then I got involved in charities, that stemmed from articles I’d written – I set up Jaisalmer in Jeopardy to save an endangered fortress city in India, and became a founder trustee of Asha Nepal, to fight for exploited women in Nepal.

Sue Carpenter, Filmmaker, I Am Belmaya, Interview on The Table Read
Sue Carpenter

When did you first realise you wanted to make films?

It was the film Born into Brothels, in 2004, where the children of prostitutes in Kolkata were given cameras and found joy and emancipation through photography, that inspired me to do my photo project in Nepal, and also sowed the seed of my wanting to make a film too. I’m always drawn to truth and authenticity, learning about hidden stories, and to standing up to injustices. So documentaries were a natural fit for me, but I didn’t know how to make the leap from journalism or photography – although the storytelling and visual skills cross over. The advent of digital cameras and editing software democratised filmmaking, and I made my first film in 2015.

What is your favourite thing about films?

Their power to evoke emotions and open your eyes to other worlds. All my work has been about communicating, and film brings together the numerous ways of communicating in one art form that can say so much. Going from words and static pictures, to moving images and dialogue, has been such a fascinating, multi-dimensional challenge.

What classes or research did you take to support you in your filmmaking career?

First I did an editing course in Adobe Premiere Pro, which I never thought I’d master, coming to it so late in my career, but opened up a whole world to me. I followed up with two courses at the City Lit, one in general filmmaking, and one in documentary, each one day a week for two terms, and both ending up with my making a film. I actually did these courses after starting following Belmaya (she was training at the same time), which is not recommended! But it gave me invaluable skills and confidence for our filmmaking journey.

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What was your first film industry job?

For my short films, I’ve always been a one-woman band, deciding on the story, filming and editing it. My first commission was to make a fly-on-the-wall documentary, The Wonderful Walk, about the creation of a 40 metre mural for a station underpass, involving over 2,000 people in the local community. What started as a 10 minute film grew to 30 minutes! But I also edited a 5 minute version to cover all bases!

Tell me about a favourite experience in your career. Something that stands out in your memories and makes you want to find more experiences like it.

In filmmaking, when there’s serendipity and flow, the crew are getting on well, and the subject has mental energy and enthusiasm. Belmaya had been turned down by her daughter’s headmaster to film at his school for her education film. She was a bit despondent. Then she mentioned there was another school she’d rather her daughter attended. So she asked to see around it as a prospective parent, and the doors opened. They were happy for her to speak to their students, perhaps because they had nothing to hide. Belmaya was really fired up and got some wonderful interviews. Our cameraman also got some great footage of her at work. Showing her film in her village was also a magical evening. We should really have had a professional lighting kit, but my low-tech, minimal-gear approach probably resulted in more authentic, natural footage.

What was your toughest experience in your filmmaking career?

Lots of moments during the making of I Am Belmaya have been really tough. Working in a foreign language and culture is always challenging, and it was hard when I came up against chauvinistic attitudes. With my NGO hat on, I was concerned not to intervene or apply my mindset to the Nepali culture, but my instincts as a woman often told me otherwise. It was hard to navigate the right path.  My big lesson has been, while obviously respecting cultural differences, if your instincts say you don’t trust someone or a situation, you’re probably right.

What inspired you to make I Am Belmaya?

Belmaya herself. She was so charismatic and wore her heart on her sleeve, which is very unusual in Nepal, where girls are taught to be demure and mask their emotions. Belmaya found it hard not to blurt out when she felt something was unfair, and I found that edginess in her captivating, and a way of shining a light on the reality of life for girls and women in Nepal. She had so much to say, but had always been denied her voice. I was inspired to help her get that voice out to the world, through both her short films and the film about her, I Am Belmaya.

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What is the main conflict of I Am Belmaya?

Belmaya’s husband and the patriarchal society as a whole. Everything is stacked against her. She had lived a life of struggle before I met her, and that continued until a year into the filmmaking (the mid point of the finished film), when things began to turn around. We witness the growing resentment of her husband, and realise how daring she is to embark on filmmaking and educating herself, in a household and community that expects her to stay at home and do what she is told.

Sue Carpenter, Filmmaker, I Am Belmaya, Interview on The Table Read

How long did you spend in production?

We started filming in March 2014, and finished five years later. There were gaps in between, notably a year from April 2015, when the earthquake struck, and all work and communications in Nepal ground to a halt.

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How long did you spend in post-production?

A lot of the editing has been done along the way, starting in 2015 when we were unable to continue production because of the earthquake. So that too has been a long process, with sections of the edit being done in bursts, each time I came back from a production trip. After the final shoot in April 2019, it took another 4-6 months translating and editing, and during the Covid year, 2020, another 6 months of fine-tuning, and working with the composer, sound editor and colourist. We finally completed in October 2020 – but of course with lockdown, couldn’t release until 2021.

How big was your crew? Would you choose the same size again?

The production crew fluctuated and was always small. Our best shoot was with four of us – a lead cameraperson from Nepal, a Nepalese/British assistant producer/cameraperson/interpreter, and me and Belmaya. We were a good team, and able to relax and have a laugh at the end of our long days. We didn’t have a dedicated sound recordist which was at times challenging in the edit, but we needed to work fast and unobtrusively. So I’d aim again for a crew of maximum two, plus me and the subject/s.

Tell me something you were surprised by, something you had never realised about being a filmmaker.

How long it takes! Even with shorts, but certainly with an observational feature documentary. Each stage requires huge dedication and effort, even though the end result may look effortless. Despite my hoping that documentaries would mean working in a team, it can still be solitary, and as director/producer, the responsibility lies on your shoulders. But, a bit like having a baby (in this case, seven years in gestation!), once it’s out in the world and surrounded by well-wishers, you forget the difficulties along the way!

Also, how much general coverage you need – to express emotion and mood, and everyday life. These are gold dust in the edit. My shot list kept growing to include dusty streets, women at work, Belmaya in down moments, Belmaya walking with her daughter, Belmaya writing in her notebook, etc. And you need to think in sequences, not just random shots.

What are words of advice you have for other aspiring filmmakers?

The same as Belmaya’s advice: just do it, you can do it. I’ve spent a fair amount of my life thinking I can’t because I don’t have the right credentials, but actually my biggest successes in life have been where I’ve pioneered something and just done it. Of course you also need to stick with it. Take breaks along the way by all means, and try and gather supportive friends in the industry around you, but keep going, get to the finish line. The more you do, the more you realise you can do.

Give me your social links so people can come and find you!

@iambelmaya on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. for everything about the film.

I AM BELMAYA is now in cinemas and on demand at Curzon Home Cinema and BFI Player.


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