by Erica Bates

Despite the fact that the picture of what a childhood should look like may vary widely from nation to nation, children boxing in filthy fighting rings does not match with what most cultures across the globe would consider a normal upbringing.

Todd Kellstein’s documentary Buffalo Girls, follows two Thai girls, as young as eight as they punch and kick each other in Muay Thai rings to provide for their families. The film is likely to leave some readers with a bad taste in their mouths.

Muay Thai Culture In Thailand

The first thing that springs to mind when you think about Thai sports is Muay Thai. Often known as Thai boxing, it is the most widely practiced sport in Thailand and is also the country’s national pastime. People from various walks of life come to Thailand to study Muay Thai, a combat art that has its roots in the Siamese armed forces.

The eight points of contact used in Muay Thai are meant to evoke eight traditional combat weapons, thus the name “The Art of Eight Limbs”.

There is a common belief that a Muay Thai fighter can turn their whole body into a lethal weapon by focusing on the eight specific points of contact. The hands are the sword and dagger, the lower legs and forearms are the armour, the elbow is the heavy mace or hammer, and the upper legs and knees are the axe and staff.

Muay Thai is a popular sport in Thailand and throughout the globe because of its genuineness and adaptability. Many engage in MMA training every day, and many more place sports bets on MMA fights. Muay Thai is an essential aspect of preparing for mixed martial arts, and some of the world’s best boxers train in it.

Child Muay Thai Fighters

Stam and Pet, the 8-year-old protagonists of Buffalo Girls, are Muay Thai fighters. Muay Thai, when performed by experts, is both stunning and deadly. It’s hardly even a show when done by inexperienced preteens.

Although there are three bouts shown between Stam and Pet, this documentary is hardly trying to be a boxing action flick like Raging Bull. Kellstein films the bouts from afar, avoiding graphic close-ups of strikes and wounds. He often replaces the sounds of the fight and the audience with ethereal music.

Instead of focusing on the dubious spectacle of young girls fighting, the director chose to focus on the family relations that stem from this uncanny scenario.

That’s a perfectly reasonable approach given how Stam and Pet’s matches show exactly what you’d expect from two kids fighting. What little of their competition is shown on screen, it’s clear that they lack any real training or expertise, and their fights are motivated solely by a desire to provide for their families.

Although the fights seen here did not result in any significant injuries for Stam or Pet, a quick aside shows a referee mentioning that many of Thailand’s 30,000 child boxers suffer from broken arms and legs on a regular basis.

Director Todd Kellstein called the sight of Thai children boxing awful upon his first exposure to the sport. Despite this personal take, his documentary does not comment on nor protest the practice, and it remains steadfastly focused on its two leads despite the fact that neither of them is old enough to understand or have any insight into their “extra-curricular” activity.

The documentary appears to implicitly concede that Stam and Pet’s choice to fight is understandable, given the extreme poverty in which their families and communities find themselves. Seeing exotic dancers in the background of one of the fights shown in a city’s red-light district suggests that boxing may not even be the worst method for Thai women to make a living.

It is explained in the film that the word “buffalo” may have two different meanings in Thai culture. The steadfastness and might of these enormous Thai animals are a symbol of rural fortitude and resilience. On the other hand, it’s a label given to “yokels” by city residents.

The Buffalo Girls

Stam and Pet live in Thailand’s rural area, where they have few opportunities for employment or promotion. Each of them competes in the 22-kilogram weight class, which is popular with gamblers. Stam explains that the source of their determination for fighting is the simple wish to make her mother and father happy.

Besides assisting her mother in the family’s fruit and vegetable shop, Stam is also a student. When compared to what she can make from a single, four-round match, her parents’ earnings are laughable. The family is relying on Stam’s wins to finish the construction of their home on their farm.

Pet’s profits are not really committed to any one endeavour, but her dedication to her family is nevertheless admirable. She suffered from a congenital cardiac problem and had surgery just two years prior to the filming of the documentary.

After the particularly tough fight in the red-light district, we’re shown a shot of Pet crying due to a stomach injury. Her mother offers the explanation that her daughter “is like this because she has a hole in her heart.” As a show of solidarity, Pet’s mother shaved most of her head, leaving only two tufts of hair, which she holds in pigtails.

Final Thoughts

The filmmaker avoids answering an issue raised by the fact that most spectators would not find kid fighting to be entertaining: what draws people to these kinds of competitions? The movie’s commentary is introduced and concluded by a delighted bookie declaring that girl fighting is very popular right now.

There is no evidence of reflection on the part of Stam, Pet, and their families, and Buffalo Girls makes little attempt to probe their actions beyond presenting them. While not particularly insightful, the documentary is morbidly intriguing.