In Thailand, one of the more popular styles of fighting is Muay Thai in which participants box, hit and kick their opponents, all of which can result in injuries ranging from bruises to broken bones. Well, what if I told that this was all being done by young children as young as eight years old?
This is the subject of director Todd Kellstein’s new documentary, “Buffalo Girls,” in which we follow two eight-year-old girls as they fight other juveniles in order to win money to help their families survive.
Kellstein gives us an honest, impartial look into this world and allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions as to the morality of it all. By the end of this documentary, you will find it hard not to feel for these young girls as the survival of their families sometimes relies on the outcome of the next fight.
As hard as it is to fathom, there are over 30,000 children who fight in underground Muay Thai competitions in Thailand. Stam and Pet, the subjects of “Buffalo Girls,” are typical young girls, each with a unique personality, but what sets them apart is that they are both dedicated fighters. They train daily and work very hard to get in the best shape, each coached and prepped for the battles they are about to fight and neither can afford to lose.
While it is hard to remain completely impartial while watching the film — I personally was rooting for Stam — both girls have more pressure on them to win as each of their families is at least partially dependent on them winning the prize money to keep food in the mouths of the families and a roof over their heads.
During the film, you see each girl struggle with physical pain as they train, and the emotional pain of a loss, but neither seems weak and both appear much more developed mentally then possible peers who don’t have the survival of an entire family resting on her shoulders.
As the film progresses, you come to know the sport, and the way the attendees bet on each girl and how much each fighter can win money. There is even something called “injection,” where someone can “inject” more money into the pot of the winner to give them a renewal of energy and resolve to win if they seem tired or despondent. In the end, only one can win the title of “Eastern Champion” and the larger prize to help keep their family afloat. One thing is certain, both the lives and living situations of both girls could drastically change depending on the outcome of the final fight.
The idea of children fighting each other for money is completely ridiculous to me, because I have grown up and lived in a Western civilization where we are taught from an early age that parents are solely responsible for the safety and well being of their kids. The same is not true in other cultures where honor and respect are always paid to the elders and they are taken care of by the younger generation. Neither way is right or wrong, they are just different ways to live.
Watching the fights, and the heartbreak, as the tears well-up in one tough eight-year old adolescent fighter after she loses the match is hard, especially because all she wants is to help her family financially and the pressures of the loss seems too much for such a young mind to handle. While it appears both Pet and Stam like to fight, it is hard to justify the brutality they must endure when you see they can’t give a reason — besides the money that goes directly to their parents — as to why they continue to fight. I think, personally, that children should be able to be just that, children, and shouldn’t have the weight of the world pressed upon them by such adult cares and worries.
I can see why Kellstein chooses this subject for his documentary and it is easy to see why he could stay for years in the rural landscape of Thailand to capture these girls’ stories. “Buffalo Girls” is an intriguing look into another culture and way of life and you won’t be forgetting these two young girls’ faces or their stories anytime soon.
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