The first time filmmaker Todd Kellstein saw Thai children boxing — two 8-year-old girls with gloves on in the ring in a rural corner of Thailand — “I thought it was horrible child abuse. I wanted to make a film that would create awareness and make it end.”
Now, after spending three years on a project he thought would take him 10 months, Kellstein, whose unexpected and fascinating documentary “Buffalo Girls” had its debut at the Slamdance Film Festival, sees things differently.
“It’s really not our business to say what people in other cultures should or shouldn’t do,” he says now. “In the U.S., people are adamant that it has to stop, but that’s not really the point. I tried to make a film that found a balance.”
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“Buffalo Girls” took as long as it did to make partially because it took a full six months for Kellstein to gain the trust of Pet and Stam, the two girls who are the center of the film, as well as their families. “Pet’s dad thought I was working for the other side, spying on her training methods,” he says. “They didn’t understand why people would want to watch them in a film."
Kellstein’s film background was in music videos, working with acts such as Bon Jovi, but he was looking for something else here. “I wanted this to be not slick, to be on the ground, me alone, with no crew,” he explains. “If I landed in these small villages with a soundman and a crew, it would have been like a Martian landing. I intentionally used the smallest, cheapest digital video camera I could find."
Right from the get-go, Kellstein started to learn the dynamics driving young girls and boys, estimated at 30,000 total, to engage not in classic American boxing, but in muay Thai, a mixed martial arts discipline that is said to be 700 years old.
"I asked a little girl, through a translator, ‘Oh my God, what are you doing, why are you doing this?’” he reports, “and she looked up at me like the biggest idiot on the planet and said, ‘Money.’”
For in a terribly poor country, where the sex trade is an option often taken to escape grinding poverty, boxing, the filmmaker says, is an opportunity to earn essential money.
“These kids are so happy, so full of joy, and they’re full of pride at doing something that contributes to the family, that can help them buy a house,” Kellstein says. The director acknowledges that the long-term physical effects of these fights are not known, but insists that having girls involved is “a huge gender coup. Thai women are very submissive, very quiet. This is unheard of in Thai culture.”
When Kellstein returned from Thailand and told his producers about his thinking, they were aghast. “They said, ‘You can’t say its OK.’ I got into a real argument with the guy who designed our poster; this was really chancey, dangerous material to get into.”
Gradually, a film that presents both sides of the issue and asks the viewer to decide took shape.
Interested in Buddhism before his time spent in Thailand, Kellstein has a quote from the celebrated teacher Milarepa tattooed near his right hand, a quote that seems in some way to speak to the film he’s made:
“Whatever is experienced will fade to a memory. Everything that is seen will not be seen again.”
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Photo: A scene from "Buffalo Girls." Credit: Courtesy of Todd Kellstein