[update 2/20/14: Niramon Ross shot her first footage]
I’ve been thinking for some time now that a documentary about PhetJee Jaa seems like a very worthy project.
For those that don’t know already, Phetjee Jaa is my favorite Muay Thai fighter; she happens to be 12 years old and absolutely amazing. I loved watching her fight on Thai TV when she would be featured on an Aswindum Stadium card on some Sundays and following her path as a child fighter, a female fighter, and a girl fighting boys was all fascinating and inspiring. But then she was banned from fighting boys anymore on live TV and she pretty much disappeared; then the story got even more interesting. Why was she suddenly banned in such a public way? I was heartbroken by the injustice of it all, but search as I might I could not find substantial answers, only guesses. Yet by a series of coincidences (and perhaps fate) I was able to actually meet Phetjee Jaa and her family down in Pattaya when I went there to train with Sakmongkol and at Petchrungruang Gym for 7 weeks, starting in January of this year. Meeting Phetjee Jaa in person, she’s even more amazing. Not only is she an interesting story in her extraordinary Muay Thai skill and path, but she as an individual is captivating – she’s simply an extraordinary person.
The idea of making a documentary on Phetjee Jaa really germinated after meeting her and watching her in her home gym with her brother Mawin. It’s unclear exactly how this documentary will take form but it seems more and more that its possibilities are greater than its limitations. If we can firm up a project plan and get permission and interest from her family in the prospect of a documentary, we will likely be taking the project to Kickstarter. This post is about the first definitive steps we’ve taken.
Meeting with Ying Ross
I met Ying about four years ago in New York City. It was a life changing moment one could say. We were both shooting documentary footage at the retirement fight of NY female fighter Natalie Fuz – Ying had been shooting a documentary with Natalie for over two years already and I was making a YouTube video of just the event itself, so two very different projects with the same interest in subject. I was an enthusiastic Muay Thai student fairly new to fighting, and that show was the first “real” Muay Thai I had seen. From there Ying started filming me as part of her documentary project and we became friends. When I first came to Thailand in 2010 for a shorter stay, Ying shot footage of my experiences here and I learned through that process that she can do anything – she’s like a shape-shifter who can scale walls and use invisibility cloaks to hide in plain sight. She also has an incredible cinematic eye, which is evident through her work as a well-known cinematographer in big-production Thai films: Niramon “Ying” Ross IMDB. I love all her films, honestly, and would love them even if I didn’t know her. Many of them have been in the Thai horror genre, where her meditative camera work can really come out, but she’s also been very interested in documentary film projects. My favorite film of hers is Dek Hor (Dorm). Ying’s camerawork really pulls out atmosphere and builds spaces within spaces on the screen in a way that I haven’t really seen anywhere else. Of course, a documentary film is worlds away from a horror movie and so the images in this trailer are not foretelling of what kind of work a documentary film entails. However, this film more than any other exhibits the patience of Ying’s cinematic eye, just finding the best angle from which to wait out the unfolding of a story and a scene. This is how Ying approaches documentary: don’t come with a story, come for the story and let it play out and develop on its own; her concern is just finding the best seat in the house from which to see it unfold.
Dek Hor (Dorm) (2006) Trailer
It is enough to say that if I could have a dream team choice of who to include in a documentary, Ying would top the list every time. I haven’t seen Ying in about two years – she’s always working and moving between New York and Thailand and Korea for projects – but suddenly we were able to meet up for lunch and coffee here in Chiang Mai while she was doing some location scouting and other work. I’d mentioned the Phetjee Jaa idea to her over Facebook before but now that we were sitting across from each other having lunch in a Thai cafeteria there was more opportunity to express the full impact of my impressions from Phetjee Jaa’s story, her family, her gym, and herself. Ying certainly saw what I saw and started to get excited about the story of this little girl being banned from fighting boys – what will the family do?
The conversation continued at a cute air-conditioned coffee shop we found. There we sat exploring ideas about how to proceed. Ying would be heading down to Bangkok the next day, she explained. We mentioned to her that Phetjee Jaa happens to have a fight scheduled for the 18th, in a few days (now tomorrow), so Ying figured she could go see the family and possibly go with them to the fight. This was fantastic. I messaged Tawan (Phetjee Jaa’s mother and manager) on Facebook, asking for her cell number, and as soon as it appeared Ying was talking to her outside of the coffee shop – we had been showing Ying improtu footage of our first visit to the gym and she had been becoming more enthused. The longer she talked out there in Songkran heat the better. She came in and everything was set, and there was even some surprising news. I’m telling you, Ying just makes things happen.
Exploratory Photography: PhetJee Jaa Fighting a Boy Again
While discussing things with us Ying strongly suspected that despite the official ban on girls fighting boys PhetJee Jaa would start fighting boys again, just under different auspices. She really hoped that this would be the case. When she talked with Tawan about making arrangements to go with the family she found out that indeed this is going to be a girl vs boy fight, technically called an “exhibition” in order to get around the authority’s ban (maybe that means there’s no purse, or a hidden purse, and the real money is in gambling, we’ll have to see). Note, there is no opponent pictured in the fight poster (above). I’m not completely sure how this works, the family had only one fight for PhetJee Jaa in the four months since the ban (that they would admit to), against a girl in Korat who outweighed Phetjee Jaa by nearly 10 kilos; but now they had a fight set up with a boy, and Ying is going to film it. I really have no idea whether Phetjee Jaa has been fighting boys on the sly, but when I visited with the family and trained with them at their gym it was evident that the ban had really altered their lives.
Siracha Thailand, go to Google Map
At this stage this is really an exploration of the project. Ying will be using her camera to figure out what narrative threads are possible here. She was insistent that we not come to the project with a “concept”, and that the stories will just unfold, revealing themselves. And we were very much in agreement, while there do seem to be very interesting themes in play. From my perspective this is also an exploration for Ying herself. I was very captivated by PhetJee Jaa as a person and I’m hoping that Ying will be too. For now the aim is to just wade in. Ying will come back with footage that we can potentially use in a Kickstarter trailer, and she has ideas about contacting Samart (who cornered for Phetjee Jaa at one point and against whose fighter she was scheduled to fight when the ban was announced on TV) and others. On May 8th she’ll be back in Chiang Mai and we can talk about what potential has been uncovered, and where she thinks the film might be able to go.
If you have any thoughts, ideas, resources or services you’d like to contribute even at this early stage please do. If the project moves along it will definitely move to Kickstarter, but there is much to be done before it gets to that point. Just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know what you are thinking, or leave a comment on this post.
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