Todd Kellstein’s Buffalo Girls may prompt retrospective shame of your past enjoyment of various sports films that encourage you to conveniently hiss at a privileged villain while cheering an unambiguously virtuous underdog. Everyone in Kellstein’s documentary is an underdog, and the villain springs from a complicated mixture of cultural ideology and unrelieved need. Set in the slums of Thailand, Buffalo Girls concerns what any first-world citizen possessed with even rudimentary sensitivity would consider a revolting pastime: female child boxing. The primary subjects, nicknamed Stam and Pet, are eight and 10 respectively, and they’re put through grueling paces that might make adult boxers blush in embarrassment.
The film is a difficult work, and may inspire you to wish a variety of bibilical comeuppances on the kind of adults who would force their young, physically unformed children (or, at least, brainwash them so they think it’s their choice) to battle one another in unmistakably brutal cage matches that are demoralizing, appalling, and nearly unwatchable. Nearly as disturbing as the fights themselves is the method the adults in Stam and Pet’s lives, including their parents and trainers, as well as various bookies and other hangers on, have of relating to the children. Stam and Pet are often regarded as little more than livestock (a tendency that informs the film’s title) or product to be weighed and groomed in the hopes of winning a few thousand dollars a match. The girls are mercilessly pressured to do better, to do more, when it’s clear that they’re successfully performing at a level that’s equally untenable and miraculous.
But Kellstein doesn’t allow you to entirely indulge convenient (though understandable and perhaps irresistible) armchair outrage. It’s easy to hate virtually everyone who appears in this film other than Stam and Pet, particularly during a moment when Pet’s parents, following a lost fight, joke about leaving the girl, as she weeps in the family’s cart, in the red-light district. The parents, though, are clearly acting out an embedded abusive cycle that conditions one to using whatever resources they have at their disposal in an effort to survive unimaginable poverty. Kellstein captures moments of affectionate grace that imbue the violent bouts with an even greater dimension of betrayal and perversion than is already apparent: These parents unmistakably love their children, and clearly indulge a variety of self-delusions to live with the fact that they’ve placed their entire family’s well-being in the hands of a preadolescent forced to participate in a blood sport. You come to realize that this film is a snapshot of a kind of hell, and that desperation is capable of knowing unforgivable bedfellows. Buffalo Girls, a ghastly and not entirely resolvable film, is also a sober-minded cry of anguish as well as a work of considerable, resolute empathy.