“I’ve fought 23 times,” says Stam Sor Con Lek. “I lose some, I lose a little.” She wears a pink blouse with a Peter Pan collar, her short hair pulled back with a white barrette. She pauses, then waves her hand at the camera, a gesture of playful frustration, then dodges out of frame. Cut back to another frame, slightly wider, to show the laundry hanging on her family’s porch. “I’m still shy right now,” Stam asserts, then pulls her at her mouth with both hands to make a funny face, before she laughs at her own joke.
Stam is eight years old. She’s also one of some 30,000 girls who box for money in Thailand, according to Todd Kellstein’s Buffalo Girls. She wears matching pink shorts and t-shirt in the ring, where you see her repeatedly, shot from low angles outside the ropes, the mobile frame barely keeping up with her tiny figure as she swings and bounces, slugs and ducks, her gloves as big as her head. Focused mostly on Stam and 10-year-old Pet Chor Chanachai, the film doesn’t offer much in the way of context, no statistics or authoritative voiceover. Instead, it offers kids at work, specifically, kids surrounded by adults who benefit from that work.
Among these is a bookie named Walee Niyom, framed from below as he sits in a chair, his legs spread wide. He describes the betting process, whereby audience members raise up their pinkies and thumbs to wager; a brief cut to a chaotic fight scene illustrates, as hands fly up and fat-cheeked bookies run about to take money, cheap lights glaring overhead. Why do you like boxing, asks the off-screen interviewer. “To be frank,” he says, “I make good money.” And with that, the film offers a series of interview bits with children, proclaiming they want to box to make money, to go to school or support their families. “Where do you keep your money?” the interviewer asks, as the camera swings from right to left to follow a little girl’s finger, pointing to her mother, whose bright smile is a mirror image of her daughter’s.
These brief moments raise questions about the stories that follow, as both Stam and Pet’s parents insist that the kids are only doing what they want to do. Asked how long he’ll let his daughter to fight, Stam’s father, a former Muay Thai champion, says that it’s up to her: “If her body can handle it, she’ll keep boxing.” He leans back away from the camera, his shirt pulled tight and buttons popped open over his narrow chest, before the frame cuts to Stam training: she does sit-ups, she runs, she spars and kicks, she concentrates. At home, she leads the camera to the bedroom she shares with her parents, then lays out her two favorite boxing outfits on the bed: pink and turquoise, with bows. Posing with her trophies, Stam says she wants money because “I am very, very poor.”
This is, of course, the background for the film, which shows again and again the poverty that produces little girl boxers and the expectations of their parents. Pet’s mother, Autorn Nongpoi, and father, Prasert Intakam, reveal that she was always sick when she was younger (she had a heart disease), but this year, since she started boxing, she “has grown fast.” They don’t worry that she’ll be hurt, they say, soda bottles with straws on the table before them. “We tell her to train hard,” says her mother. “If not, you’ll get hurt, kicked, and punched. If Pet focuses, Pet will be the one who kicks them. And she agreed.” What can this possibly mean, you wonder, as you watch this adorable child — her pigtails bobbing — smiling in sunshine. How can she “love what she does,” as her mother insists? How could she imagine alternatives?
One alternative appears near the end of the film, just after you’ve seen a harrowing championship bout, Stam against Pet, the girls exhausted by their efforts, sweating and panting, urged on by their corner-men who douse them with water before they send them back to the fight. “Don’t hunch!” Stam’s trainer tells her, “Work harder!” The scene goes on for long minutes, and then, when the winner is decided and you imagine the point is made, that these are cruel adults and the children are exploited, Buffalo Girls cuts again, to another scene, one that’s not so much separate from the fights as it is related, another instance of the same story.
This would be a night out after a fight: Pet and her family stop by a bar for dinner, complete with drinks and young women who are entertaining men. A few choice shots show Pet in the foreground, girls and lights and drinks in the background: she’s focused on tying her shoes while the film hints — none too subtly — at poor girls’ limited options. When she goes on to describe for her mother what went wrong in a fight she’s just lost, that she suffered a cramp, the lens turns sick-green, night-vision-style. Autorn teases her, her father complains that she’s made a mistake (“You can’t eat and then fight”), and then the shot cuts back to the fight, Pet looking about to pass out.
The editing here is not subtle, but the film’s argument is complicated. It’s not only that Pet’s situation is dire, or that her mother’s love can be brutal, though this point is made painfully clear when Pet appears sobbing and her mother explains it’s because she’s threatened to leave her in town, not to bring her back home. Even as Autorn laughs, insisting she would never do such a thing, she goes on to threaten her some more if she doesn’t stop crying. Pet cries more, nearly unable to breathe. “She has a hole in her heart,” Autorn concludes. “That’s why she’s like this.”
It’s impossible to know how much or what part of this sequence is a function of the camera’s presence, who’s performing or confessing what. Still, for all its unknowns and for all that doesn’t actually happen in this sequence, it’s harrowing, as disquieting as the fight and training scenes. Fighting is a “way of life,” comments Stam’s father early on. And so you see — in every possible way.