In late February, John Wolcott of Muay Thai Is Life finished shooting a documentary on muay thai in Thailand. The documentary will be released as mini series over the course of 2012. I thought I’d catch John before post-production began to see where he’s at.
1. Hey John. What were your goals stepping into shooting this doc?
Hello Laura. Stepping into this documentary my aim was to learn more about the social dynamics of Muaythai; the aspects of the sport that get little-to-no recognition in the West. Fans and spectators get to see their favorite fighters compete all the time via the Internet, but how often do we get to learn about a fighter’s background or family life? Or what drives them to succeed? How does the general population of Thailand view Muaythai? I wanted to understand more about this culture that, for so many people living in poverty throughout Thailand, is used as a means for survival. I also wanted to capture the beauty of Muaythai. And by beauty, I mean the paradox of how brutal and tough Muaythai can be, but at the same time how humble and respectful the fighters are. In the West, we have this misconception that Muaythai is only about getting in the ring and fighting on two feet, throwing punches and kicks, knees and elbows. However, as most people who fall in love with Muaythai will tell you, there’s more to it than that. There are many virtues that go along with Muaythai. And these virtues carry over into a person’s everyday life. This is what separates Muaythai from all other combat sports, and true Muaythai fighter from some who fights. This is the message I want to relay to viewers through the documentary.
2. Did the process of filming create more questions than you had stepping off the plane? (If so, what were they?)
As filming progressed over the weeks my outlook on Muaythai had changed quite a bit. Although I have been traveling to Thailand annually for the past six years, I’d learned more about Muaythai on this trip than any previous trips before. Actually, for about one week, I had to put the camera down and stop filming. I called my translator and told her we were done. It was upsetting to see some of the fighters that I had become close with over the years retire, and then fall into the cycle of drinking and living an unhealthy lifestyle. And seeing that right there raised many questions. I had wondered if some of the gym owners really cared about their fighters and trainers. I had wondered if the Thai government or tourism authority had any care for these individuals. Why hasn’t the government set up any programs where they teach fighters from a young age how to prepare for their future? The WMC has programs to warn children of the dangers of drugs, and I’m sure the Thai government is making plenty of money off of tourism based around Muaythai. But there are no programs set up for the fighters. Couldn’t they use some of the money from Muaythai tourism to help educate the fighters and trainers? After all, a better scenario around these gyms would most likely guarantee foreigners wanting to come back and train again. But then again, I am just a guest in Thailand, and there are a lot of things that don’t make sense through my eyes.
3. Can you give us a brief rundown of who we can expect to see interviewed.
I wanted to capture the opinion of Muaythai from people in all arenas of social life in Thailand. So we have fighters, the dean of social sciences from Mahidol University, employees of Lumpini Stadium, trainers from numerous gyms, university students, and prominent foreigners who currently live in Thailand and are involved with Muaythai is some way. Altogether there were about 25 interviewees. A detailed list of fighters includes: Pornsanae Sitmonchai, Sam-A Gaiyanghaadao, Petchatsawin Seatransferry, Deangchiangkwan Sangmorakot, Petchissan Seatransdiscovery, P-teng Kiatponthip, Moo Sitmonchai, Nuengthep, Tung, and Rungubon Eminent Air, Melissa Ray, and Joseph Pinto. I may be missing some. Forgive me if I am.
4. Favourite moments?
My favorite moments had to be arriving at the Muaythai camps and not knowing what the day would bring. This time around I had the opportunity to visit some great gyms and talk to some special people. Each day brought a new experience with it. Every fighter and trainer we sat with had a fascinating story, and even now I am still learning more about each fighter as we go through the translation phase. But if I had to put any moments on top of my list, it would have to be filming Pornsanae and Sam-A. I really admire what both fighters have done in the sport.
Outside of filming, I’d say removing the mongol from Pinsiam Sor. Amnuaysirichoke at Rajadamnern Stadium had to be the highlight of this trip. I’d cornered some of the younger fighters in Thailand in the past, but Pinsiam is a legend. For Jartui, the boss of Sangmorakot, to ask me to do that it was really an honor. I remember becoming very nervous because I am not familiar with any Thai prayers, so I had to go with what I had. I figured it was the meaning that was most important, not so much as what language was being spoken. For someone like myself, who will never step in the ring at Rajadamnern Stadium – or any stadium – to fight, it was a great experience to be that close to a place where legends are continuously born.
5. In one of your posts regarding the filming, you wrote of the shadow side of muay thai, that which coexists with its beauty. Your quote: “After digging so deeply into the sport this time around, I’ve learned that the ugliness is just as prominent.” This is something that I went through, for me it was the slow and continual disintegration of the romanticism of muay thai so prevalent in the West, something I had embraced and perpetuated through my writing. Can you expand on your perspective?
This is a tough question to answer without writing a book on the subject, but I will take a crack at it. I think you’re right. Most westerners who visit Thailand for the first time view it as some magical place where Muaythai is at its purest and all is grand. I can still remember thinking the same thing for the first three trips I took to Thailand. But as you said, the more one goes to Thailand or the longer one stays there, the quicker that romantic view fades and things become exactly as they are. This is the point where you either tell yourself you’re done, or you tell yourself you’re going to stick it out because what you love about Muaythai far outweighs what you dislike. You have to accept that just as Muaythai in New York City has corruption, Muaythai in Bangkok also has corruption. I think the real issue lies in a clash of cultures. We cannot blame the Thais once our eyes have been opened to the reality of Muaythai. Because it was us, the foreigners, who were jaded from the beginning. And we are still only guests in their land. We can only hope that one day they will realize what they have, and how their heritage is giving birth to many subcultures in different countries around the world.
In the past, I too only wrote about the beauty of Muaythai. I failed to recognize that there was an ugly side to the sport. I always knew it was there, but I just didn’t want to accept it. I didn’t want to put it out in the ether and have people exposed to that side of the game. However, filming this documentary has taught me the complete opposite. The Thais that I spoke to outside of Muaythai all expressed their love for their national heritage, but they also stated that it was because of the corruption that most had turned away from the sport. Even members inside the Muaythai community expressed similar sentiments. In order for the corruption to cease, it needs to be brought to light. So maybe one episode of Muaythai Journal will highlight some of the corruption that takes place. People would be very surprised at the tricks used by judges, referees, gamblers, and even some of the fighters themselves. I was told that about 20-30% of the fights are fixed. Whether this is true or not is hard to say. How do you measure corruption?
With this in mind, we cannot take the good without the bad. It’s part of Muaythai, whether we like it or not. But I feel it’s up to each of us to put our best foot forward and represent the sport as positively as we can, even at the times when those closest to it may not. We can’t focus so much on the negative because then that’s the only thing we tend to see. Whenever I am feeling down, or learn about an aspect of Muaythai that degrades the sport, I remember those at the grassroots level. Those are the people I do this for.
6.How has this experience changed you? Your work?
On a personal level, these trips to Thailand always have a deep impact on who I am. I’m very visual in my approach to life. So when I observe things, especially the way trainers and fighters live in Thailand, it really affects me. I will never forget the conditions of some of the camps. When I learn about an 18 year old who sleeps under a boxing ring and has to fight to help his family earn money, because his mother doesn’t work and his dad sells bread, then I have no right to ever complain about my living conditions in America. And that is what I always try to hold with me, no matter if I am writing, training fighters, or helping with students in the gym. I always hold on to the idea that I have to represent Muaythai as best as I could, and try to instill in those I come across to strive for the same thing. We have to represent the sport for those who dedicate everything they are to it. I think it’s the least we can do as a group who is taking from another’s culture and way of life.
As for my work, this experience has just reassured me about my desire to move to Thailand and continue doing work like this in the future. I can easily say that I have seen the best and the worst of the sport, and despite being pretty bummed out at times, I was still able to walk away with a deeper appreciation for Muaythai. It’s funny, because when someone enters Muaythai and wants to fight, they never really see past fighting. Because they are so focused on that. And then they stop fighting and maybe they start training fighters, and they never really see past that. And then something else comes up and they find themselves even more involved in Muaythai. Then eventually, it just consumes you. It becomes who you are and you can never see yourself without it. Muaythai Journal is just another extension of my love for this sport, and I can only hope that is accepted by the Muaythai community. It would make all the hard work worth it.
7. Lastly, what are you hoping the result of this production to be?
Basically, to inspire people. I want to show people what it truly means to be a part of Muaythai. Like I said earlier, Muaythai is more than being able to hit and get hit, or being able to hold pads for a fighter. Muaythai permeates every layer of the individual. It’s physical, it’s mental, and it’s spiritual. It has to do with morals and standing up for something you believe in, whether that’s wanting to be a world champion, or just wanting to put a little extra money in your mother’s and father’s pockets. If we let go of some of our western ideals, we can learn a lot from these fighters and trainers. That is what I want to show the world, or whoever may be watching.
On the production end, I hope to have the first episode ready for release by late spring or early summer of this year. After the first episode, additional episodes will follow on a bi- or triweekly basis. I am shooting for about 6-7 episodes in all, with each episode being approximately 15-20 minutes in length. I am still very green to all of this, and because everything is being done out of pocket, there may be minor flaws in the production. I was basically a one-man band aside from the help of my translator and having one or two days help from my friend and teammate, Liam Tarrant. However, I think a lot of people will be surprised with the final product.
Thank you to everyone who made this dream a reality. Write On!