Buffalo Girls - Interview 1:1 with Todd Kellstein

Photo Credit: Getty Images
December 4th, 2012

I recently had the chance to sit down with Todd Kellstein, directory of the new documentary Buffalo Girls, about the lives of two young girl Muay Thai boxers in provincial Thailand.  Read on for Todd's thoughts on his impetus for the film, the socio-economic and cultural backdrop of the film, and his experiences during production.

MovieRoomReviews:  First thing is, you worked in music videos predominantly, initially, and then you were “looking for something more,” and that something more wound up being in Thailand.  So I'm wondering, what took you to Thailand to begin with?

Todd Kellstein:  I was there doing a job with this really great fighter named Paul Tocha.  He was trying to direct this film about Thai prisoners who use Muay Thai to learn discipline and maybe get out of prison early if they do really well.  So I was there and helped him, because he wasn't a director.  I didn't know anything about Thailand, Thai culture, or Muay Thai at all.  I was just there on the technical side to help him out.  While we were there, we went to Chonburi, and we saw the buffalo races., which is where they literally race the buffalo.  They ride them.  It's crazy.  On the side were the kids fighting, in a ring.  That's where I met Stam [one of the two girl boxers profiled in the film].

MRR:  As a western born and raised person, obviously, this is a very different thing.  I certainly had never heard of child boxing, at least at this scale.  The fact that it's in this case girls... It shouldn't be different than if it were young boys in this new enlightened age, but... it is.  So what was your first thought? And how big of an event was it?  Was it like the rings that we saw in the film, or was it something smaller?

Kellstein:  It was a bit smaller than that.  It was a side show to the buffalo race.  But the events that we ended up shooting were pretty big, thousands of people.

MRR:  If this was a sideshow, you're just walking through, you're expecting this other thing, which is also pretty... I'd never heard of riding buffalo until just this moment, and you're walking by that, and there's this other thing.  So, what was your first thought, and how did you react to that?

Kellstein:  I freaked out.  My first reaction was they're so tiny, really tiny - under the ropes.  My first thing was that, and then that they weren't wearing head guards, or anything like that, just gloves.  I thought that was just nuts, because I'm a westerner.  I'd been in Thailand for two weeks.  I didn't know what the hell was going on.

MRR:  When did you decide to make a film out of this?  You were there on a job, so you weren't already... Or where you already trying to think, “Okay, what else to I want to do?”
Kellstein:  Nope, not at all.  I didn't have any intention of being in docs at all, especially not sports movies.  That was never something I would have imagined I would do.  But it was meeting Stam that day that just changed my whole life honestly.  I saw this crazy spirit she had, this incredible work ethic.

So I got up to the ring, and she starts talking to me.  I asked her why she was fighting, with a translator, obviously, and she looked at me like I was a nut.  She was like, “I fight for money.” And I thought, “****, man.  That's a ****ing story, right?”  It was literally like a light switch.  I wasn't thinking about boxing.  I wasn't thinking about Thailand.  I wasn't thinking about gender issues.  I wasn't thinking about any of that.  I just wanted to tell this kid's story.  My thinking was, “If you're like this when you're eight years old, and this is what your life is like, it must be amazing if you dig into it.”

MRR:  The press notes describe this as an underground phenomenon, but from the size of these matches, it doesn't look all that underground.  So, how mainstream is this?  Is this something people go to and then talk about it at the water cooler, or is it something they go to and pointedly not talk about it at the water cooler?

Kellstein:  They definitely, in the provinces, talk about it all the time.  You can find a match any night of the week somewhere in rural Thailand for sure.  In Bangkok, not so much. In Chiang Mia, not so much.  Just places where there's a lot of poverty.  There's a huge disparity economically there, bigger than here.  So in those regions.
It's technically illegal.  It's kind of underground, but people just look the other way, because it's so important to the economy.  It's so important to the rural economy, that if they tried to shut it down, there'd be a revolt.  You just can't do it. It's a 700 year old sport, totally interwoven into the fabric of Thai society.  Muay Thai is the national sport.  So you don't really want to mess with it.  So they try to regulate it.  They did, but people just don't pay attention to it and keep doing it anyway.  They've been doing this for hundreds of years.  This isn't new.

MRR:  Okay, that was another question.  For my eyes, this is so completely unheard of...  Is it part of the culture, is it something completely new, and is it new for children, or is it new for girls, or...

Kellstein:  It's not new for children at all.  Historically, you start five or six years old training.  Historically, forever.  But for girls, it's only since the mid to late nineties that they were brought back into the ring to be able to fight.  In the very, very, very beginning of Muay Thai, women, and men, everybody, learned it as a martial art, self defense.  Something you learned to do, like driving.  Somewhere along the line, women were banned from the ring for religious reasons.  It wasn't until the mid to late nineties that this guy, who I know really well now, he re-instituted girls back into the ring, young girls.  The reasoning, it's crazy, it's not because he's equal opportunity, and not because he cares, but because the girls are cute, they wear bright colors, and it brings more people in to see the rest of the fights.

MRR:  Interesting.  So this film, it premiered at Slamdance, correct?
Kellstein:  Yeah, last year.

MRR:  Okay, so it's been out in the world a little bit.  I'm really curious as to what kind of responses you've gotten so far.

Kellstein:  We released it in New York, a week after Sandy, so that's rough timing, and then we're releasing in December here on the West Coast.  And then VOD, streaming, DVD.

MRR:  What kind of response have you gotten already, at Slamdance and anywhere else where it might have been shown, and then what kind of response are you anticipating from the wider releases, and do you have any concerns...

Kellstein:  I'm super concerned.  I'm very concerned.  Slamdance is an interesting one, because it's all about filmmaking, and the filmmaking in this is not really the point.  The reactions are always very visceral, and they're always about the kids.  It's always about the brutality of it.
I'm finding that people more and more are now talking about the wider, more important issues:  The economic disparity.  Gender issues have come up.  But there are some pretty violent reactions sometimes.  Most people are emotionally moved by it.  They like the kids and they want them to do well, and want to ignore or are confused about why it's happening and what's going on.

At the human rights festivals we did in Australia and New Guinea, and the U.N. festival, those are the questions that are great, “Why is it happening?”, “What is the socio-economic system there?”,  “How are women now finally being empowered to help the family, and is it customary in Thailand for women to do that?”, which it is.  So those are the great questions.

Obviously, we know that it's brutal and it's crazy to look at little girls punching each other.  So it's cool to use those images – we pump it up in the trailer like crazy, we make it look really brutal – to get you in to watch it, and then show you they have lives and they have dreams. They want to go to school, they want to build a house – there's reasons behind what's going on – and that they're going to do whatever it takes to get there.

MRR:  It's really interesting just watching the film the choices you were making as far as when to show and what to show.  It was really interesting for me to gauge my own response.  From the trailer on, I knew it was going to be uncomfortable during parts of this 66 minutes.  I was really curious how uncomfortable I was going to be.  I found that I was fine with the training, I was fine with the running, to a certain extent.  But then you realize, “Wait. They're not just running to have fun.”  They're eight years old and they're trying to support their family.  Her father is laid up with a broken leg, and that's why she's running.  When I was eight years old and I was running around the countryside, that's not why I was running.  That's a really crazy thing to think.  But then you see them actually in the bouts, and there is just this really visceral reaction.  So how much did that effect your editing choices, your music choices, whether a rousing cue or something more foreboding?

Kellstein:  It completely informed everything.  I had a real rough time when I first got back.  I'd been there so long, years, and I was so on their side, I mean really on their side.
I thought, at first, we were going to make a call to action film, and I then just barely begun to scratch the surface of Thai culture. I realized that they live in a completely different world than I do, and I can't be judging, I can't be making any call to action, because my research shows that when the West tries to fix things, we **** them up.  So I don't want to make that kind of film.

So then I started thinking, “This is the greatest thing you could possibly do.  We should all box.  We should all do it.”  Obviously, you can't do that either.
There's so much that got cut out of the film, because I really wanted to get people to have just enough information to just ask their own ethical questions about it without any input back to it.  Even the referee and Mr. Lee, the bookie, they're only in there for the minimal amount of context. There's very little context in the film.  Again, I did that on purpose, because it's completely subjective what I choose to use, the context of what I film.  I didn't want to keep pushing my point of view.  I really wanted people to do what I did, which was try to figure it out, think about it.  What would you do in this situation?  Is it as bad as it looks?  Are they training hard enough?  Are they training too hard?  That's why it's a short movie.  We took out tons of stuff.  I got interviews with everybody.  I was trying not to push an agenda at all, really trying not to, and that makes people angry as well.

MRR: Especially in the documentary world.  A documentary like this, you expect it to have an agenda.

Kellstein:  You do.  I expect it to, but I made a very conscious choice not to have a call to action.  It's a lot easier to promote a film, to engage people with a film in the film's afterlife if you do that, but in this case, I don't think it's the right thing to do.  It's not.

MRR:  How long was the production?  How long of a period of time in these two young girl's lives do we see in the movie?
Kellstein:  It looks much shorter than it was.  I started filming in 2006.  I was there from '06, '07, into 2008, shooting all the time, everything, every friggin' train station, every birthday party, all that stuff.  Then we came back to do some editing, I went back for another three or four months for that last fight.  So it was a few years.  They're growing about three years over the course of the film, but they don't grow that much.  They look pretty much the same.  It could be a week.

MRR:  When you're eight years old, three years is a long time.
Kellstein:  Now they're 12, 13.  They're much bigger now.  The reason it took so long is we kept running out of money.  That's what would happen.  I would be there... I sold all my stuff.  I thought it would last a long time.  It lasted about six, seven months, and it took me three months to even find Stam in the first place, because I didn't write the name down when I first met her.  So it took me three months to find her.  Then we kept running out of money at the end, like money for gas to get to the train.  So I'd be down for weeks until some other kind of weird funding would come in, something back here.  Then the editing process was even worse.

MRR:  So guerrilla filmmaking here.

Kellstein:  Total guerrilla filmmaking.  The camera that 80% of it's shot on is a $300 Canon camera, literally the cheapest small camera I could get my hands on:  One, so I didn't freak the kids out, and two, I didn't have any cash.  I had to fix the camera... One of the springs broke inside the tape mechanism.  I had to fix it with the spring from a ballpoint pen and a staple, because there's no service places.

MRR:  How much of a crew did you have?  You had an interpreter of course...

Kellstein:  It was just me and an interpreter.  I did some experiments where I would give the cameras to [friends of Stam and Pet, the subjects of the film], and they would go shoot.  It didn't work out, unfortunately.  A lot of thumbs, pictures of rocks.
It was pretty much just me.  Sound was really the hardest thing.  I'll never go without a sound guy again, never.

MRR:  I think this was a interesting, well done first effort.  Are you going back?  Going back to docs?

Kellstein: Going right back to docs.  I spent years and years and years making really slick music videos and commercials, where every frame is important.  Everything is criticized, everything is looked at and talked about for twenty minutes before you role a frame.  In this, I wanted to go completely the other way.  In my head, everything was slick, slick, slick, and I'm thinking, “This is not a slick story.  I'd be an incredible asshole if I in anyway try to glamorize what the hell is going on here.”  So I went the other direction, maybe a little too far the other direction, with guerrilla filmmaking.  Next time, I think I'll add a little bit more style to what's going on, just a little bit.  I don't want to get carried away by the direction.

Buffalo Girls premiers in Los Angeles at Laemmle's NOHO 7 on December 7th,