In Chiaing Khma, a small city in the north of Thailand, near the borders of Burma and Laos, Thai Army lieutenant and retired boxer Jawee Sukantha runs a Muay Thai camp for boys from the surrounding villages. Some of these children are orphans; others left their poverty-stricken families to learn to fight, a skill they believe will help them forge a future away from the dust of the farms or the exploitation of the streets. Some are as young as 6.
In his new documentary, Torn Cloth, director Tate Zandstra goes inside Jawee’s gym in an attempt to explore the reality of child fighters with objectivity, talking with the children, their trainers, and older fighters about what boxing means to them. The kids are adorable, often shot holding roosters or chicks or while riding horses. Their lives are disciplined and structured. They train, they run, they go to school, and they train some more. They are part of a family and have chores around the camp and house, which include washing dishes, drawing water from the well, caring for the animals, and making repairs to their boxing ring.
Still, it’s a difficult task, especially for Western, first-world viewers, to get their heads around the idea of small children fighting, especially within the shady context of racketeering and corruption, and in 2012, the United States Department of Labor cited Muay Thai as one of the most egregious examples of child labor abuses in Thailand. The U.S., the United Nations, and even the Foundation for Child Rights Protection Centre in Bangkok have condemned the practice of Muay Thai for children under 16. But these critiques are meaningless assertions of self-righteousness if they’re not accompanied by a understanding of their own position in the world and a recognition of the difficulty of diagnosing and analyzing the “other.”
In his 1978 book, Orientalism, philosopher Edward Said claimed that the concept of the Orient (the East), as the inverse of the Occident (the West), “has less to do with the Orient than it does with ‘our’ world.” The problem with the Western construction of the East is that it occurs not just through a lens of difference but through a lens of power. Our reading of cultural practices in the East is mitigated by our inherent belief that our cultural practices in the West are correct. (I apologize: I generally detest authors who refer to all Americans, or Westerners, as one large, fleshy “we,” but it seems like the right pronoun for this discussion.) Said’s seminal text delves deeply into the way that the Occidental world constructs the Orient through the language of difference used by various institutions of power. Governments, academia, and the popular media reduce the Eastern world to a series of disparate descriptions: The East is romantic, dark, and sensual and also repressed, ignorant, and child-like. The East needs the West in order to right itself and become part of the “enlightened” world.
Said claimed that the Orient is an idea and that the “locales, regions, geographical sectors” known as the Orient and the Occident “are man-made.” East and West “support and to a certain extent reflect each other.” But while our concept of the other may be a projection of our own ideology, the footage in Torn Cloth is a reality. The fights we see are carnal and almost tangible. They are real, and the aftermath of the fights is filled with pain and despair and joy.
At the dedication of his new training facility, Jawee invites dignitaries and celebrities to watch the fights. Thai movie star Tony Ja makes an appearance, demonstrating techniques and speaking about the importance of Muay Thai and the preservation of Thai culture. Moments later, 6-year-old Bau enters the ring to fight, and it's hard to watch. He is so tiny, and his little bones make a sharp, clacking sound when they crash into another child’s shins.
It sounds horrible, but I relate this scene to youth football in the U.S., where very young children tackle each other wearing the same type of gear as college and professional players. Both sports are dangerous. Both sports are known to prematurely age and damage athletes. Interviews in Torn Cloth reveal the fighters' motivations for competing in Muay Thai, and they’re not at all unlike the reasons men play football in America. Muay Thai is a show of dominance and skill and often described as a demonstration of masculinity, though women comprise a substantial part of the fighting world. And all of the fighters, event the youngest, describe Thai boxing as an honorable way to make a living. Boxing is a career--a short and brutal one, but a career nonetheless.
But there is a distinct element of Thai boxing that elicits criticism and condemnation from both inside and outside Thailand, and that is gambling. Gambling certainly exists in the United States and other countries, but it typically doesn’t go on at youth games and it definitely doesn't occur on the sidelines, the way men gather ringside to bet on Thai boxing. This pecuniary element makes Thai boxing seem exploitative to critics, but for many Thai people, fighting is more than just a sport; it’s a way out. This is the harsh reality for many poor Thai people, and their children.
And reality seems to be the primary objective of Torn Cloth. It tries not to judge, nor to conceal the ugliness of fighting behind a veneer of naiveté. It also doesn't sensationalize the dark parts of the fighting world or ignore the many moments of happiness and joy. Torn Cloth presents a fighting art that many of us love within the context of the place and culture in which it originated. It is beautiful and harrowing and exhilarating and tragic: all the things that make fighting so compelling.
Edward Said suggests that we, all of humanity, must find a way to study cultures from a “nonrepresentative and nonmanipulative” perspective. Perhaps the linguistics of fighting, articulated by the body, can be a way to get outside the dominating language systems of power and subordination and view the "other" differently.
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