‘Beyond the Fields’ Will Tell the Story of the Child Fighters of Isaan

Fightland Blog

By Frances Watthanaya

Photos and stills courtesy of Marcus Ubungen

Beyond the Fields is an in-depth look into the lives of the child boxers in Northeast Thailand. Commonly referred to as Isaan, it is Thailand's most impoverished and underdeveloped region. Isaan produces more fighters and subsequently more champions than any other area in Thailand. Children as young as six begin fighting to help provide for their families. For many it is the only escape from poverty, but Marcus, the director of Beyond the Fields, discovers that it is not without its risks. We sat down with him to find out more.

Fightland: We really love the teaser. Tell us a bit about yourself.
Marcus Ubungen: My name is Marcus Ubungen, and I'm a commercial director and filmmaker based in San Francisco. Many of the projects I direct involve working with real people and showing their world. I've always had a love for documentaries and am a big fan of Muay Thai. Beyond The Fields is my debut feature film, and I'm very excited to tell this story.

What is your background in Muay Thai?
I trained in Muay Thai for about seven years. It began in film school, when I was so fascinated by the sport that I begged a local fight gym, called Fairtex, to hire me in exchange for training. I had a few smoker fights but never got serious about taking it beyond that. I was mostly drawn to the technique and the way you could use all your limbs to attack and defend, at range or up close in the clinch. It's so effective and I wanted to learn everything about it.

Have you ever traveled to Thailand before?
I have been to Thailand a few times for work, where I filmed a team of American fighters competing in huge tournaments against fighters from other countries. During my first trip in 2006, the U.S. team trained and slept in dorm-style rooms at a nearby fight camp, and that's where I saw child boxers up close for the first time. I was instantly intrigued and it was that experience that sparked the idea to make this film. It was an incredible sight to witness the contrasting worlds of these children, swaying between fighting and being normal playful kids.

Why did you choose to make this film?
I promised myself that when I had the resources and the time to dedicate to it, I would return to tell this story. This has been on my mind for years and I finally decided I was ready to just jump in. From the start I've wanted to bring an awareness to these families, to humanize them, instead of making broad strokes about why children fight.

A lot of reporting I've seen about Muay Thai tends to make blanket statements about the sport, or paints the situation in a barbaric and negative light. When I spent time with fighters in Thailand, I didn't feel that their lives were so black and white. It was much more nuanced which is why it's important I tell the story from the inside out, by putting viewers into the shoes of the fighters, their families, and their communities. This topic can be emotional and uncomfortable, but it shouldn't be demonized without examining the complexities involved.

Were there any moments while filming that things got a bit too real for you?
There was one moment during a fight where I saw a boy take an upward elbow straight to the chin, BAM! His knees buckled and down he went, off like a light switch. I had seen plenty of fight knockouts before but what struck me was that the kids there don't wear mouthguards. I watched as this half-conscious boy was carried out of the ring and wondered if his jaw was going to be alright. I remember thinking that these kids were brave and fearless but that they could still get seriously injured.

Were you surprised at the level of poverty you saw in the villages as opposed to Bangkok and other cities in Thailand?
It was definitely a vast contrast going from Bangkok to Isaan and seeing the lack of resources in the villages. It's heartbreaking and yet the families there still make it work. I've traveled and filmed in emerging countries, and I'm always amazed at how resourceful people can be, how hard they work, and how they survive with so little. Personally it's an eye-opening experience, being born in San Francisco, and seeing the abundance of material things in our normal daily lives.

Why do you think these kids fight and do you think it's worth the risk?
Every person in this film has opened their life to me; I've spent time with them, gotten to know their daily routines, their struggles and joys. With that openness, comes a genuine responsibility for me to tell their story accurately. I'm doing that by approaching this film without bias, by giving these individuals a voice and treating this topic with respect and honesty. I hope this film raises awareness and sparks an honest dialogue about child boxers.

As a documentary maker, how do you produce a film like this without exploiting the kids or their families?
For me, it's important to tell this story in an authentic way. In order to bring an awareness and start a conversation around the film's subject matter, we need to spend time with the families, see what daily life is like, and have them show us their routine. Getting to know their lives gives me a genuine responsibility to tell their story properly. And we can do that by approaching this film without bias, by giving these individuals a voice, and treating the topic with respect and honesty.

Tell us about your Indiegogo campaign.
I think it's amazing that we live in a time where we have numerous platforms that allow people to directly support what they want to see and get made. I chose Indiegogo because some of my favorite documentaries were funded through them, and they have great tools to make the process easy to setup.

I've poured a lot of personal resources and funding into the project, and have called in a bunch of favors to get the film to its current state. And while I have enough footage to make a great short documentary, this story is so multifaceted it really deserves to be a feature-length film. That's why I'm asking the community to help support and complete the movie.

What we can expect about the finished product?
You can expect an intimate on-the-ground look into the world of these children, to learn about the culture and rich heritage of Muay Thai, and see a true exploration of the contrasting points of view surrounding the sport.

I want to: captivate people that may have never been exposed to Muay Thai, to show the fight community something they may not have seen before, and to challenge any preconceived opinions going into and coming out of the film.

Visit Indiegogo to get involved.


Check out these related stories:

Against the Odds: Bpaet Becomes a Muay Thai Fighter

High-Frequency Fighting and the Children of Muay Thai

Banchamek Surin: Inside Buakaw's Gym in Rural Isaan