A startling docu about two 8-year-old girls competing on Thailand’s large, legal child-boxing circuit, “Buffalo Girls” runs the risk of having its firmly nonjudgmental tone interpreted as tacit endorsement of a sport many will find extremely disturbing. Not without uplifting moments to balance the heartbreaking realities facing the fighters, the pic is bound to spark discussion about docu filmmaking, due to its absence of concerned voices. Releasing Nov. 14 in Gotham and Dec. 7 in Los Angeles, “Girls” will attract plenty of attention, but may struggle to find auds willing to witness extended footage of children in combat.
Opening with the first of three bruising fights between elementary-school students Pet Chor Chanachai and Stam Sor Con Lek, the docu shows the girls and their families as willing and enthusiastic participants in the lucrative child-boxing business. According to information presented in titles, some 30,000 children engage in professional Muay Thai boxing matches, where large crowds and big gambling stakes are the norm.
It’s no surprise to discover that most competitors come from poor rural areas (“buffalo” is a derogatory term applied to country folk by Thai city dwellers). They are motivated by the prospects of attaining a good education and helping their families rise above poverty.
Such is the case with Pet and Stam, two of the most accomplished combatants and rivals in the 22-kilo division. Stam’s ambition is to help her parents (her father is a former Muay Thai champion) realize their dream of owning a house. Pet, meanwhile, an arresting sight with a mostly shaved head and battle-hardened spirit, recovered from heart surgery two years ago and competes to help parents Autorn Nongpoi and Prasert Intakam out of their dire financial straits. The mothers and fathers here all appear non-pushy, but their urgent economic imperatives show through in heart-wrenching moments such as Pet’s mother telling her, “Dad loses money on you.”
With extended coverage of the matchups at the beginning, middle and end, the docu has a compelling narrative arc and two marvelously engaging subjects whose childhood hopes and dreams produce many affecting moments between bouts.
But the burning question of child safety and long-term physical effects of fists-and-feet Muay Thai boxing is all but absent. The closest helmer Todd Kellstein gets to the subject is a brief interview with Nikom Wangtasa, a referee with 20 years’ experience who describes horrific injuries suffered by child boxers, and says he stops mismatches to protect the weaker fighter.
Considering that many will regard child boxing as inappropriate, at the very least, the docu invites criticism by choosing not to include any voices of dissent or analysis of the sport within a broader social and cultural context. Informed local opinion and acknowledgment of laws passed in recent years, in response to lobbying from concerned medical officials, would help auds understand where this tradition comes from and how it is viewed in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country.
Viewers seeking answers to these questions will most likely not respond well to the triumphant “Rocky”-style original music, or the scenes of Pet and Stam slugging it out for the title in a ring positioned in the middle of open-air bars in Pattaya’s entertainment district. Camerawork is simple and effective; other tech credits are fine.