There are roughly 30,000 child boxers in Thailand, but lest you think it’s simply adolescents being introduced to the sport, think again. These are kids as young as eight years old. They don’t wear head gear. They’re often the only thing separating their family from an even lower level of poverty.
And many of them are little girls.
Buffalo Girls is a new documentary that follows two players in this particular world, Stam and Pet, as they train, compete and attempt to do right by their families. One is a scrappy little underdog whose family home is dependent on her winnings, and the other is a taller, seemingly tougher girl whose home situation is far more fragile. Their stories share many of the same beats, and like last year’s Warrior you can’t help but want both fighters to win, but only one of them comes out of this story with a happy ending.
“When the house is done if she wants a bed she’ll box and get paid and we’ll take her to buy it.”
The word “buffalo” has two meanings in Tagalog beyond the norm. One is synonymous with a symbol of patience, but it’s also a derogatory term for a poor Thai farmer. Both Stam and Pet come from such households, and it’s clear that the financial contributions their fight winnings make are a substantial part of the family’s income. The weight is placed squarely on the girls’ small, bony shoulders, and when asked why they fight and where their prize money will go the answer is usually identical: to their mom and dad.
Director Ted Kellstein followed the two girls over the course of a few months, and while they don’t know each other outside of the ring, they meet there twice during the film. We see them training well into the nights with one session ending with a tired and topless Stam sitting on her brother’s legs as he does situps. It’s only good “if it hurts” she tells him. Their fights are a series of jabs, swings and knees to the gut that look fierce and painful in general, let alone against such small frames.
Our affections for both girls are built up through their experiences and family dramas leading to a final bout between them where it may as well be Rocky fighting Rocky. Even as we question why they’re in the ring at all, we hope impossibly that both girls will win.
The film offer an emotional glimpse at Stam and Pet’s lives, but it never takes a stance on the events. At under ninety minutes that means it doesn’t really say much at all. Arguments aren’t made for or against the girls’ situations, but we see the divergent results of their final match as one family earns enough to build a new house while the other sends their girl to fight in the red-light district. A case could be made for the fights being beneficial to the winner’s family, but does that justify the physical and mental toll on the child? Obviously some of the best docs reserve judgement and simply present the facts as they’re captured, but more information would have been beneficial for viewers trying to comprehend the bigger picture.
To that point, the movie never moves beyond these two girls. True, the opening does feature some brief statistics, but aside from that there’s limited scope. Brief mentions are made to one of the girl’s schooling, but how much of this gets in the way of their education? 30,000 children fighters is a substantial amount, but no time is given to share average “career” length in the sport, potential damage the children suffer or what life is like for them afterwards.
Buffalo Girls is an eye-opening look at a situation that would never be allowed in a Western country. The mind can make excuses when it comes to boy fighters because that’s what boys do, but watching these young girls slugging away is an odd and discomfiting sight. To be clear, it’s not just because they’re girls. It’s because they’re so little, so young and so vulnerable to the world around them.
The Upside: Eye-opening; suspenseful; sad
The Downside: Film has no opinion on the situation; tight focus fails to provide context or scope
On the Side: Todd Kellstein was Second Unit Director on Joseph Kahn’s Detention