‘Buffalo Girls’ Documentary: Eight-Year-Old Thai Boxers Find Something to Fight For

‘Buffalo Girls’ Documentary follows Thai children becoming professional Muay Thai fighters; a bigger scandal is the economic disparity that forces the kids to kickbox.

buffalo girls documentary

Stam, an accomplished prizefighter in Thailand at the young age of eight, listens to corner advice in a scene from the Buffalo Girls documentary. (Photo Courtesy of Paladin/108 Media)

Stephen Saito writes about movies for the L.A. Times, IFC.com and his own site, The Moveable Fest.

When filmmaker Todd Kellstein arrived in Thailand from Los Angeles, he didn’t know the language or the culture. He did have a great interest in Muay Thai, the kickboxing martial art that within Thai culture is practiced as much for its deep connection to spirituality as it is to develop bone-crunching kicks and punches. The Muay Thai connection ultimately led Kellstein to begin filming a documentary about the sport as it existed in the nation’s prison system.

After leaving the penitentiary and attending the buffalo races in the Chonburi province with a professional Muay Thai fighter friend, he decided to turn his attention to a different set of boxers—the eight-year-old girls he spotted in a sparring match that was a side attraction to the main event.   

“I told [my friend] I wanted to do this documentary about the girls, and he’s like, ‘They’re just little kids. Nobody cares,’ ” recalls Kellstein. “I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ He was adamant that no one would care and it wasn’t interesting. I didn’t believe him.”

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Kellstein’s initial interest may have been sparked by astounded disbelief and knee-jerk disgust at the spectacle of female children engaging in such a brutal competition. The director soon found that the story of the buffalo girls was thematically very similar to the narrative he originally embarked on. Instead of making a film about men who fight within the Thai prison system to liberate themselves mentally from their physical incarceration, he was following a pair of children—Pet and Stam—who battle for the hope to free themselves of their impoverished economic circumstances.

The girls’ parents are likely to make around 5,000 baht in any given month; their daughters can win 100,000 if victorious in a tournament. No wonder child boxing has become a popular sport in impoverished rural areas of the country.

The girls’ parents are likely to make around 5,000 baht in any given month; their daughters can win 100,000 if victorious in a tournament. No wonder child boxing has become a popular sport in impoverished rural areas of the country.

“I thought it was terrible [at first],” Kellstein tells TakePart. “But there was something about the way the kids were speaking to me when I first met them and how happy and proud they seemed to be. It occurred to me I’m having this reaction because I’m coming from a very ethnocentric place. When I got to know them and see how poor they were and how badly they needed the money, it became very clear that what they’re doing is incredibly noble.”

The Buffalo Girls documentary, which is being released theatrically in Los Angeles this week, opens up on that note of duality, citing the idiomatic definition of buffalo in Thailand as both a derogatory reference to the incredibly poor farmers that make up a significant amount of the nation’s population and “a symbol of patience, hard work and the fighting spirit.”

Indeed, Pet and Stam exemplify both those qualities. The buffalo girls’ intense training and resolve is unquestionably born from the desire to lift their families from poverty. An environment with few other opportunities forces them to grow up fast and engage in an adult sport. The Buffalo Girls documentary becomes an incredible story of self-sufficiency in a place that leaves young girls no hand in creating themselves, a place that made Kellstein change the direction of his film after realizing that ultimately it’s not the buffalo girls we should be worried for—after all, the film shows that the tough pre-teens can fend for themselves just fine.

“I thought we were going to make a call-to-action film to try to bring attention to it and stop it,” says Kellstein. “The more you think about these global issues of poverty, what you really see is Western intervention normally makes more harm than good; so I decided to really be as objective as possible and not make a statement, but to just show the incredible heart these kids have.”

Are the Buffalo Girls exploited or liberating themselves or both? Talk it over in COMMENTS.

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