I loved the film and was very excited to speak with Todd, who Skyped with me from his patio in Los Angeles. It’s an amazing, modern world where you can video call a person across the planet and record it right on your computer – in a more amazing, modern world the recording would be perfect, but this one is still pretty good. The sound is not synched at times, so it should be treated as a podcast with photographic supplement.
Todd’s PR person who set up the interview allotted 20 minutes for me, but we ended up talking for nearly an hour and probably could have kept going, talking about Buffalo Girls, Thailand and Muay Thai for hours if I didn’t have to get up for training the next morning. It was a real pleasure, which I’m sure is evident in the interview itself.
I will be transcribing the interview over the next few days and posting it in installments. Below is the first 12 minutes, but the entire video is embedded below.
above, video of my Skype interview with director Todd Kellstein
Transcript Pt. 1
S: My name is Sylvie, it’s really nice to meet you.
T: Yeah, I’ve been following your fights for a while now.
S: That’s shocking to me.
T: Are you kidding me? I follow every female Muay Thai fighter there is.
S: That’s actually, shockingly, not as hard to do as it sounds, unfortunately.
T: No, I mean, with Facebook everyone is posting everything.
S: I was really amazed when I first started watching your movie that – I’m here in Chiang Mai, I’m in the north of Thailand – that the women I fight, a lot of them are like Pet and Stam. They’re not 8-year-olds, but they’re being trained by their families. They’re coming from a pedagogy that is very different from mine, you know, coming to a boxing gym and learning this way. It was really beautiful and kind of – I felt very connected to the idea of watching these girls train and their lives outside of the boxing gym. So that’s kind of where I was viewing it from and it was really beautiful.
T: Have you always been in Chiang Mai?
S: I’ve been in Chiang Mai for seven months now. I came here two years ago initially and I’ve also spent some time down in Bangkapi, just outside of Bangkok. So, I’ve seen very little of Thailand outside of Chiang Mai.
T: It’s just interesting [to me] that you’re not training in Isan.
S: I would love to train in Isan! It’s difficult as a woman and as a foreignor to train in Isan.
T: Is it?
S: I would imagine; I can’t say from first-hand experience how hard that is, but given the complexities, even in Chiang Mai which is a college town, you know they’re very used to foreignors, the gym where I train has had many women before and there are still obstacles that are pretty striking when I come up against them every time.
I’m very fortunate that in the two years since I last time I was here and since I’ve come back there are a lot more female fighters my size. I’m very small, so it’s great to have not only more competition but really good competition now.
T: How many kilos are you?
S: Between 46 and 48.
T: Pet’s on her way up there. Pretty soon.
S: See how that goes!
S: I saw an interview with you where you were saying what initially brought you out to Thailand was this prison documentary –
S: – and I’d heard the same thing about fighters getting early release for fighting.
T: Not true! [laughs]
S: Yeah [laughing] I actually know of one woman who fought a boxing match and got out. She was at the “Bangkok Hilton” they call it and she ended up getting paroled into the area where Pet trains now, in Prathum.
T: In Prathum?
S: Yeah, so I don’t know how these things are being disseminated into the world that we believe it, but it’s very interesting that you went there to look at it. How long did it take you to figure out that this was not going on?
T: Well the thing was, I was there as a DP, I wasn’t there as director. So there person I went with – pretty great fighter actually, this guy Paulo Tocha, I don’t know if you know him –
T: – he used to train back in the 80’s at [Satani Khun?] in Bangkok, long time ago. He was the one who was directing that thing and it turned out he was wrong. So we spent a lot of time in [sakbangwan?] we went to Pattaya Roman Prison and it just didn’t happen. They were like, “no this is not what we do, that would never happen; we would never let somebody out for that,” so it was just a big mess and we were not getting anything.
S: So, were you with Tocha when you first saw the girls fighting?
T: Yeah, we went to Chonburi as sort of a side thing to go to one of the buffalo races and the girls were fighting on a stage just to the side of the buffalo races. So I went over with the translator and was like what on EARTH is going on? You know, eight years old, what is this kid doing? So I asked Stam, you know, “why do you fight?” when she came off the stage and – she won and, you know, all the pictures and everything – and so I asked her and she looked up at me like I was an idiot – and you’ll think I’m an idiot too – because I said “why are you fighting” and she said, “for money”. [Under his breath: wow]
T: And it’s funny because Paulo didn’t think that was an interesting story. I think he’d been there for so long, he’d spent so much time in Thailand and it was just so matter-of-fact to him that it didn’t shock him at all the way it shocked me. I didn’t know anything about Thailand.
S: Well, this is an interesting response that my husband and I both had, which is that we were both incredibly moved by this movie and see it as the best Muay Thai movie we’ve ever seen in the simplicity and pureness of its expression and yet we were thinking about my trainers, my Thai trainers, and how if we tried to show them this movie they’d think that this wasn’t even a story, it’s just Muay Thai.
T: Right, this is boring! That’s exactly what the kids say! I tried to show them a rough cut a while ago and they were all “eh, whatever.”
S: I know that you came back and you decided that this was something you wanted to follow, so you sold everything and came back to Thailand. How did you – how long did it take you to start feeling differently and kind of move through all the different complexities of understanding what was going on that you started to see it differently?
T: Ah, yeah, well… I would not say that I understand all the complexities of Thailand – at all. I think you know what I’m talking about: you never figure out Thai people
T: ever! But it took me [pauses and thinks] probably about a year to really come around. I had a really firm stance. I mean, I became very, very, very pro-kid boxing after that. But my producers were pretty serious about not letting me make a film that was saying that kids should go out and fight. I mean, that was what I thought! I wanted every kid not in Bangkok to be out fighting! But really it’s cultural relativism and Thailand is probably the best lesson for that because it’s such a complex society, isn’t it? It’s so complicated to figure it out. You’re smiling when you’re happy, you smile when you’re angry – I just don’t know what’s going on half the time. But at the end of it, people are people and everybody has these, sort of, dreams and aspirations and that’s what’s amazing about these kids. I mean, you must hear it all the time: every little kid who’s fighting is always saying, “I want a better education; I fight to get a better education.” And that’s just a universal dream and a universal challange that we have. You know? It just is.
S: Did you follow other children fighters who did not make it into the film? You must have watched so much Muay Thai in the time that you were out there –
T: [nods emphatically] Yeah, I think we attended at least – at minimum – 200 fights and shot most of them. Mostly for B-rolls and stuff like that which ended up not even getting in. But we were following three girls, two, three four… five other boys from other gyms, all around. But the Stam and Pet story just became very organic from a story telling point of view, you know, they’re perfect because they look very different, they have very different personalities, very different training regimens, very different styles. I mean, you must have just cringed when you saw Pet doing, like lifting weights by herself and her technique is just terrible on the heavy bag.
S: I didn’t cringe at all, it was beautiful; it was so beautiful.
T: She doens’t have as much help –
S: Yeah, for sure
T: I mean, Stam’s got – her dad’s a former Lumphini champ – so she’s got a strategy coach, she’s got a physical education coach, right? She’s got all this help. And if you look at Pet’s wrists they’re bent on the bag – I mean her style is terrible, it’s just terrible.
S: So how did you end up placing the child Muay Thai, the female child Muay Thai, within the larger spectrum of Muay Thai in Thailand because you actually really represent Muay Thai in Thailand but you’re representing it through the weirdest possible figures of two 8-year-old girls.
T: Yeah, that’s what Paulo Tocha said as well. In fact, he was a bit angry about it –
T: – he’s still angry about it. His feeling was that this is not real Muay Thai. And maybe he’s just a misogynist, I don’t know [laughing]. He’s like, this isn’t the real Muay Thai, these are just kids, all kids do this, this was not a big deal. But either because I was ignorant and didn’t know what I was looking at, but I saw a spark in these two kids that I didn’t see in a lot of the older guys who were maybe a bit more jaded. I don’t know, I just saw this incredible drive that these kids had – I mean I’ve seen, at all the gyms there are always older guys, some champions and they train hard, of course they do, but these kids had a drive like I had never seen. They had a purity about the fighting that was just so beautiful, I mean, I thought it was the essence of boxing to be honest with you.
T: The don’t give a shit about the purse, they don’t care about the money, they don’t care if they’re in the paper, they don’t care about any of that shit. They just want to go to school, it’s just – it’s beautiful.
S: Pet kind of disappeared for a while, when she got sent away and had to go to her grandmother’s, she disappeared a little bit from the film and Stam became more of the focus. Did she do well where she moved with her grandmother? I know you showed where she was training and there was a deleted scene with her principal that I saw online – was that her new school or her old school?
T: That was her new school. There’s a ton of stuff that didn’t get into the film – a ton of stuff that just couldn’t – and there was an incredible scene – I don’t know why we cut it, I don’t know why, but we did – where Pet’s trainer, who’s also her uncle, got a letter from the school requesting that kids don’t fight anymore.
T: And it was in the middle of training of all things – I’ll send this to you if you want to see it –
S: Yes, please!
T: – it’s pretty interesting. Pet’s sparring with her cousin and little guy comes in with a piece of paper and hands it to the kru. The kru reads it, looks at me, looks at Pet and just walks away! Just leaves. And I’m like, where is he going? Why is he leaving? So we follow him with a camera and we’re chasing him and he’s going down to the school which is maybe only a quarter mile away and he starts, I mean, screaming at the teacher – screaming at the teacher. Literally, “this is bullshit; you don’t know what you’re talking about; this is ridiculous; this kid’s doing really great in school.” Later on that night there was a meeting with all the krus from Prathum and they’re talking about how they don’t give a shit what they say, we’re going to keep doing it – and we just couldn’t put it into the story. I just tried to condense it as much as I could, you know? Tried to condense it. So it’s not that Pet disappeared, it’s just a function of it being a very small crew, like me and my translator, and Pet’s in Prathum, Stam is in Klaeng and it’s a long way. And I’m riding my motorbike everywhere ’cause I don’t have a car.
S: [With genuine sympathy and anxiety] Oh God, yeah.
T: Yeah, I drove that thing from Rayong to Cambodia to Laos to Sri Racha to just everywhere. It’s dangerous work, let me tell you.
S: For sure.