“There are 30,000 child boxers in Thailand. This is the story of two.”
From the moment Buffalo Girls, a documentary premiering at Sundance, opened with those words, I was transfixed.
After finished watching the preview copy the filmmakers sent Stark Insider, my mind was racing with thoughts, many conflicting. Surely, this is child exploitation. It’s horrific. A baby fight club? Here we have child “boxers,” most eight to ten years old, but some as young as five, training like professional fighters. A voice from above introduces them, and they enter the hastily assembled arenas as a raucous crowd cheers them on. For four rounds, the diminutive boxers fight, kick, punch, knee, elbow, grab. Meanwhile, bookies take bets. This is, after all, big business in Thailand (“One night of intense Thai Martial art”).
“Stam” and “Pet” are two of the young girls in this “sport” and “business” that the filmmakers follow. We see them train vigorously. They’re admonished repeatedly for not following instructions, especially in between round during a match. There’s tears. When they win some Baht you can sense some pride. Stam — the 22kg champion of Thailand — put her money with her parents to help build a house because she “likes sharing”. Is she happy? Yes, she says with a beaming smile.
When prodded to explain why they do it, they admit it’s for the money. Their parents are there to support them, to allow them to follow their dreams and pursue whatever makes them happy. Where the truth lies is up to the viewer to discern. These are impoverished people, living hand-to-mouth in tiny villages across Thailand. Boxing is a path to relative riches. As a way out, the economic means, certainly in the eyes of some, could parallel those of child prostitution.
If raw emotional impact and awareness building are the goals here with Buffalo Girls, then this documentary succeeds. I paid little attention to the actual filmmaking process itself, which features shaky handheld footage (including significant amounts of live boxing matches), because I was son enraptured, for better or worse, by the real-life drama, heartache. But also the moments of joy these families are able to carve out in a world that is fiercely different than the one I know.
4 out of 5 stars
Directed by Todd Kellstein
Thai with English Subtitles
Stam Sor Con Lek – Fighter
Pet Chor Chanachai – Fighter
PREMIERE – Slamdance
6:30 pm – Sunday, January 22 @ Gallery Screening Room – Treasure Mountain Inn
How Young Is too Young to Be a Prize Fighter?
After watching the film, I searched the Web for opinion and other perspectives. I came across this ABC article (How Young Is too Young to Be a Prize Fighter?), among others. Todd Kellstein, the film’s director, is interviewed in the piece. According to the interview, his perspective on what is happening in these underground boxing rings evolved during the making of the film.
“Kellstein says that despite the bruises, bloody noses and hard kicks to the stomach he witnessed, he doesn’t feel the children are being exploited; their parents, he said, love them very much and the kids are happy to help support them.”