Stam and Pet are two eight-year-old Thai girls — but don't let looks fool you. They are also professional Muay Thai prizefighters, among the 30,000 child boxers in Thailand. The new documentary Buffalo Girls chronicles the young girls' journey to help provide for their families and improve their standard of living by fighting in local arenas and ultimately competing for prize money in the national Muay Thai championship.
Todd Kellstein, whose original background was in music videos, working with artists such as Bon Jovi and Sum 41, decided to switch gears and ventured out on his own to produce his first feature-length documentary exploring the state of Thailand's underground child boxing economy.
Buffalo Girls premiered at the 2012 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah before being screened at the Human Rights Film Festival in Australia, the United Nations Association Film Festival and other notable film festivals. The documentary opens in New York City at the IFC Center this Wednesday, November 14, and at Laemmle's NOHO 7 in Los Angeles on December 7.
We asked Kellstein a few questions via email about his film.
How did you come across Stam and Pet, the two subjects of the film?
I met Stam at a provincial fair in Chonburi. She was fighting across from the buffalo races with another small girl named Tuk. I was curious as to why the kids were fighting at such a young age, without headgear or pads. I asked her why she was fighting, and she told me "for money." That's when I decided to make a film and tell the story of these kids. I met Pet some months later. Stam fought her, and lost. We decided to follow Pet's story after that as well. The two live very far from each other, so we decided to live some of the time in Rayong, near Stam, and some of the time by Pet so we could spend time with both kids.
What was it like filming the matches, and generally speaking, the environment you were in? What were some of the challenges?
Over the years of filming, we filmed and attended at least 200 fights. The atmosphere at all of the fights can be very confusing to a foreigner. It's loud, with cheering, bettors shouting odds across the ring, and the musicians playing along with the matches. At first it was very challenging because I didn't fully understand the betting structure of the fights, and I didn't understand Thai well enough to follow the announcers. That made it very difficult to follow conversations in the kid's corners, or even know who won a fight after it was over. With only one camera, it's important to know these things to make sure we're covering the fight properly. After some time, I was finally able to understand enough to follow the fights. Also, once my translator became used to what I wanted to shoot, she was able to point me in the right direction so I didn't miss important conversations!
Emotionally, it was very challenging. Since I was so close to Stam and Pet, I found myself cheering for them during fights. Of course that's natural, but when the situation involves little kids, both of whom are fighting for money they need to help their families, it becomes problematic; you want all of the kids to do well. Sadly, in boxing there's one winner and one loser. It's heartbreaking to see a little one with so much responsibility lose a match.
What were your initial thoughts on child boxing, and how have they changed over time?
My first reaction to seeing the kids fight, without and pads or headgear, was that it was dangerous and horrific. But I saw something in the pride the kids were taking in doing something to help their families. That was what initially inspired me to make the film. Of course, my Western sensibilities were hard to overcome. My thinking was to make a film that would highlight what these kids do, why they do it, and inspire people to try and stop it. Over my years of filming, it became clear that as a foreigner, I was in no place to judge something that is so deeply interwoven into another culture. We went from making a call-to-action film, to a culturally relativistic film that simply shows the hard work and sacrifice these kids put into what they do.
Can you talk about the motivation to tell this story and the stance the film takes?
We tried very hard not to take a stance in the film. I have a very great admiration for all of the kids I met that work so hard to help their families, but in the editing process we tried to remain as objective as possible. My point is to start a conversation about economic inequality, and the lengths people will go to in order to overcome incredibly difficult economic circumstances and realize the dreams we all have: A stable family, a home, educational opportunities, and food on the table.
As a side note to that, both Stam and Pet are profit-sharing in the film, assuming we make any profit! We are also looking into partnering with NGOs in the area of Issan to see if there is any way the film could help kids and their families.
Where are Stam and Pet today?
I can't tell you how the film ends! You'll have to check on our website, or the DVD extras after the film's release, to find out what they're doing now.
Video: Watch the trailer for Buffalo Girls