Is children beating the crap out of each other an acceptable spectator sport? Todd Kellstein, the director of a film about child boxing in Thailand, leads us to believe the “sport” is an acceptable means to stave off poverty and hunger, and an “alternative to the country’s commercial sex trade.”
As Buffalo Girls shows us, 30,000 children participate in the boxing, which is also a gambling enterprise. And while the champions are indeed able to fund the building of a new home for their rural Thai families, the majority compete in the same establishments that house prostitutes and strippers. The two fighters profiled in the film, 8-year-olds Stam and Pet, both clearly state that their main reason for fighting is the money. The adults, both parents and spectators, place their bets, often offering cash incentives during the fight to encourage the fighter on.
In the press release, the director Todd Kellstein said that he went into the project wanting to raise awareness about the practice, but then found that he "couldn’t have been more misguided...A practice I thought was easily a form of child abuse turned out to have cultural and ethical subtleties existing just under its surface.”
The press release cites the rituals and blessings performed before the fight, as well as the fights' community-gathering nature of, as some of these beneficial subtleties. However, at the end of the day, it’s still kids pummeling of each other with no head gear or protective equipment.
Watching the screener, I was not overwhelmed with the feeling that the director felt morally conflicted, nor did it convince me that child boxing held innate cultural significance. Rather, the film seemed to fetishizing the young fighters and what they do. Drawing in such sentiment for the young girls especially, the cold and callous comments by their parents come off as softened. The girls appear as the intelligent ones of the family, and the parent's cruelty is chalked up to ignorance and poverty.
Cheap life. Worthy of fetish. Less than human.
That’s not a depiction to be cherished.
Lisa Ling has mentioned the folly of looking at others’ lives through American eyes. Certainly life is different for rural families in Thailand than for a middle class American in the San Fernando Valley, and I cannot fathom the harshness of life for them. However, it’s a dangerous slippery slope which amounts to adults profiting off children. It’s also dangerous to expose a practice like child boxing and then cast an endearing light on it.
The previous issue of Hyphen is available in its entirety for your perusing pleasure. Almost as good as having it right in your hands!