Friday, January 20, 2012

Slamdance ’12: Buffalo Girls

There are no participation medals in boxing. One fighter wins and the other loses. Audiences will be acutely aware of this fact while watching Todd Kellstein’s documentary Buffalo Girls (trailer here), an up-close and personal glimpse into the lives of two eight year-old girls who fight to support their families. Be forewarned, it is a real heart-wrencher, which screens during the 2012 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.

Technically, the child Muay Thai boxing circuit operates underground, but nobody seems too concerned about being caught. Young Stam Sor Con Lek is widely known as a champion in her age and weight division. Pet Chor Chanachai is the leading contender. Both sweet-tempered young girls are their families’ primary breadwinners. In hope of a better life, they train like professionals and give it all in the ring, without the benefit of head-gear.

Although both girls insist they want to fight, one has to wonder. Granted, there are not a lot of options in rural Thailand (where peasants are derogatorily called “buffalo” for their stoic fortitude, hence the title) and a successful child fighter can make thousands of Baht in a match. However, that is an awful lot of stress for an eight year-old to carry, not to mention the physical toll.

Largely filmed observational-style with only the occasional on-camera question asked through interpreters, Kellstein follows the girls through three bouts, culminating with the title fight for all the marbles. Unlike nearly every other boxing film ever produced, it is impossible to pick a side to root for. Stam and Pet are equally bright and engaging. (Their parents are a different matter though. Some viewers might want to see them go a few rounds with the Klitschko brothers to see how they like it.) Clearly, the young girls ought to be in school studying for a productive future rather than the ring, but in Thailand that is much easier said than done.

Gaining intimate access to the two girls’ home and training programs, Kellstein gives viewers a visceral sense of their daily living conditions and prospects. It is impossible not to care deeply about them after the first two or three minutes. Hopefully, if Buffalo Girls gains traction, there are mechanisms already in place for Stam and Pet to benefit, because they unquestionably deserve it. Recommended for those who can handle raw reality, Buffalo Girls screens this Sunday (1/22) and the following Tuesday (1/24) as part of this year’s Slamdance Festival in Park City.

Slamdance also has a full slate of narrative features, including Kristina Nikolova’s sensual and cerebral Faith, Love + Whiskey, which vividly captures a sense of the displacement experienced by a Bulgarian expat on her return home from America. Its depiction of Bulgarian nightlife (with its surprisingly catchy club music) ought to well suit Park City audiences when it screens tonight (1/20) and Wednesday (1/25). Slamdance will also screen Final Curtain, a never before seen television pilot, written, produced, and directed by the now legendary Ed Wood that cries out to be seen with an appreciative and slightly ruckus audience this coming Monday night (1/23).