Review: Buffalo Girls at the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival

We’re into the thick of blockbuster movie season but that doesn’t mean explosions, crappy one-liners, burly heroes, foxy heroines and gross-out comedies is all that’s on offer (not that any of those options are necessarily bad). But if you’re like me and once in a while want to see a film that won’t gross a profit of 9 figures, and that will leave you thinking (if not talking) about the movie for the week to come, there are still some opportunities to see some great alternative films this winter. This week look no further than the Human Rights Arts & Film Festival.

Buffallo Girls

Last night Rhys and I went to see their opening night film Buffalo Girls, a documentary about child muay thai fighting in Thailand. The film managed to balance a fine line between neither condemning nor celebrating the fighting because, as it stands now, it can be an important source of income for poverty stricken families, but it is also exploitative to put these young girls in the ring to beat the crap out of each other for the entertainment and profit (or loss depending on which way they bet) of the adults who are shouting from the sidelines.

I felt really challenged by the film to not just build an overwhelming sense of pathos for one child fighter because the story followed two girls, Stam and Pet, from two different backgrounds, with two different situations, who at different points in the film were each other’s opponents in the ring. The traditional hollywood ‘root for the underdog’ narrative we see in the likes of Rocky & The Fighter is totally flipped on its head here, where I found myself consciously having to try to not support one girl or the other when they were fighting. I think challenging the audience in this way was a very deliberate choice by the director who opened the film with a montage of fighting with an intense backing track, which really exemplified the typical hollywood fight sequence and opposed the footage of two girls, one aged 8 and the other 10, in an aggressive struggle to try and harm each other.

There were a couple points in the film that were unfortunately a little heavy handed. The film feels like it has been very heavily edited from a ton of footage, and some decisions made in the post-production phase come across as trying to punch the message home a little too much (excuse the pun). An example of this is when at one point later in the film, Pet has to fight in the red light district, and we get cut aways of signs saying “Girls, girls, girls” and western patrons drinking booze and chatting to scantily clad women. Previously I was admiring how the film was trying hard to be very balanced in its exploration of child fighting in Thailand, and then in small sections like this it feels like the director is straight-up turning to the camera and saying “look at the horrible conditions these children are put in”. In the rest of the film seeing these girls fight each other, and their horribly rigorous training regimens and interviews with their parents and bookkeepers who come across as manipulative and profiteering from the exploitation of these girls, was more than enough to make me think twice about the practice of child muay thai fighting.
Despite the occasional heavy handed dealing of the message it is definitely a documentary worth watching, and if Buffalo Girls speaks for the rest of the festival’s program it is definitely worth heading to the Chauvel and seeing a film you wouldn’t normally catch.