by Guillermo Xegarra
Vincent Giordano’s award-winning documentary trilogy Born Warriors is a fascinating look at the art of Burmese bare-knuckle fighting. It’s an insider’s view of a sport, shot over a decade through the years of brutal military dictatorship, with the hope of promising democratic reform within Myanmar. The documentaries are part of a larger body of work known as The Vanishing Flame that covers the bare-knuckle fighting arts of Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and India.
In this interview, Vincent takes us inside his evolution as a martial artist, teacher, and researcher through his dealings with the earlier oppressive and xenophobic Burmese military junta that endorsed heavy censorship on all media within the country. His ability to move through most of the country during this time and continue filming for over a decade is a testament to his resolve and tactical strategies.
Can you tell us about the sport of Lethwei and why it was so intriguing to you?
Burmese Lethwei, or Myanmar Traditional Boxing, is a form of bare-knuckle fighting that was once an ongoing tradition in much of the surrounding regions meaning Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. I say bare-knuckle, but to be exact it’s fought with a light gauze or regular wrap on the hand- fortified by tape.
I found bare-knuckle fighting intriguing because it came into my life at quite an early age. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, I had a fortuitous meeting with former WBC middleweight boxing champ Vito Antuofermo. He encouraged my friends and me to stay off the streets and train in boxing. I was doing martial arts, but he said boxing would serve me better in a real fight. I joined the gym he told me to go to the next day. Boxing gyms back then were very different than they are now. They essentially didn’t want you there unless you were going to train hard and fight. The first day there, they slammed headgear on my head and into the ring, I went. It was an eye-opening and painful experience, but I loved it.
On the way out, nursing my bruises, I met an old timer who told me to stay in school and forget this boxing nonsense. I tried to explain to him I was there to learn how to fight because there was a lot of commotion in my life where fighting was, unfortunately, necessary. He said then he would teach me a few bare-knuckle tricks that would get me out of any altercation I might run into. It was the first time I’d heard of bare-knuckle fighting. His hands were like rocks, and he had really vicious combinations aimed at hurting and stopping any opponent cold.
Did this one instance spark something in you to investigate the bare-knuckle systems further?
I found this method to be extremely functional and useful, but I didn’t think it would go any further than that. Somehow, though, it came back around again. I wanted to learn Muay Thai badly at the time. I carried around my well-worn copy of the late Hardy Stockman’s book that was one the first written on the sport. Later, when I made it to Thailand, Hardy would help me out and become a mentor to me. But I couldn’t find any schools or teachers to teach me. I was still a teenager at the time. One day, a friend mentioned Cambodian Boxing or Pradal Serei, and that he knew someone who taught it. He explained that it had the same elements with shin kicks, knees and clinching. Nobody ever spoke of Cambodian martial arts at the time, so I was intrigued. I went to the teacher’s apartment. It was my first experience getting hit with a direct shin kick to the leg. I was hooked. I practiced day and night.
During a class, the teacher showed us a series of very brutal techniques that were different from the sporting ones. He said this was the ancient bare-knuckle Cambodian system that his father and grandfather taught him. This echoed what I learned earlier, but in a Southeast Asian form with trips, throws, hits to the throat and other techniques that were very applicable to functional usage outside of the ring. I trained as hard as I could, but the teacher later moved away. I found another Cambodian teacher to pick up where I left off, but he eventually moved away too. These teachers had escaped from Pol Pot’s murderous rampage and made their way to the US. They were hard working and very honest. I later went to California to do some more training, but by that time I had begun to accelerate into Muay Thai, so my immersion with bare-knuckle ran parallel with my study of both Cambodian and Thai modern ring sports.
I assume you continued your martial arts education despite a lack of finding steady teachers in the SE Asia systems?
Yes, as I said, I was very heavily involved in systems like Wing Chun that I trained concurrently with the Boxing and other arts. My teacher was a fascinating man. He was an oriental medical doctor so he applied much of the healing concepts and internal dynamics to our training. But again I found the training in the Southeast Asian and Indian systems to fit my body and soul like a glove so I continued to pursue them.
There were some other systems that I enjoyed that were a bit ahead of their time. One teacher in Brooklyn, taught Judo Boxing, a combination of boxing and judo. He was a former military man who religiously practiced both arts his entire life. We boxed and we did the judo portions with and without the Gi then we combined them for rough all ranges sparring sessions. The use of grappling was always an important component that was never neglected throughout my career.
Another interesting teacher was Randall Bassett, who taught Zen Karate in Manhattan. He focused on giving you sound boxing fundamentals, then moving into adding the tools of Japanese Kickboxing that he learned in Japan. This was wielded together with meditation and mental concepts needed to survive in a confrontation. He authored a book on Zen Karate around the time I was training with him. It definitely helped to gain a deeper understanding of the how and why we were training.
When I was in my teens, I wanted to compete in the martial arts tournaments that were popular at the time, but I had no guide or trainer. I had met Sifu Ralph Mitchell, who had wonderful skill in his forms presentation as well as his fighting across a multitude of competition platforms. Sifu Ralph allowed me to train with his class on the weekends and showed me how to transition my techniques to compete. Most importantly, he showed me how to maintain my structure in the fight while adding new dynamic techniques. I then competed along with several members of his team to gain experience in that type of sparring and competition. Ralph had also trained in Thailand and China so his teaching was, of course, invaluable to me as I progressed.
As you can see, I can go on and on. But one thing remains constant. I have been incredibly blessed in my journey to have so many wonderful, capable and high-level teachers guiding me along the way. I can say the very same thing about my film career. It’s been even more colorful than the martial art one. I decided at seven years old, I wanted to be a film director. I knew in my heart there was nothing else in the world for me. I decided as my father told me to pursue both but that the martial arts would protect my spirit and body so I can pursue my art and my true calling. My art is filmmaking and my martial arts skills are nowhere near as good as my filmmaking abilities. It has remained this way for all of my life.
So this early experience later led you to directly train in Southeast Asia?
Yes, I went to master the old style bare-knuckle and weapons in Thailand and Cambodia. The styles were waning in popularity. The teachers had very few students and even fewer instructors. They really welcomed me, even though many saw the art as something for Thai and Cambodian people only. I tried to find all the remaining teachers I could, but it was quite a journey traveling great distances to train with them. I was very, very lucky especially in Cambodia, so much so, that when one very old teacher began to teach me, he said, welcome back meaning my spirit returned to where it belonged.
I trained in Muay Thai simultaneously in a Bangkok camp that had Western Boxing and Muay Thai champs. Again, it was a different time; the camps ran with a high level of discipline, and you had to listen to the Ajarn. You didn’t just show up to hit the pads. You learned the basics and really honed them down increment by increment. I have stayed with my Thai Boxing camp and all my teachers since then, maintaining my practice with multiple yearly visits. This led to training in Myanmar, India and, Laos, to expand my body of knowledge. It was a natural progression. Nobody was doing this at the time.
Did you feel like an outsider trying to pursue some of the arts very few people were practicing or understood at the time?
Far from it. I felt energized and excited every time I was able to learn even a small increment of the systems I wanted to train in. I knew I would get to where I wanted to be and learn them in their entirety. I was certain of that despite an obvious lack of means at the time.
Later, I would meet people who were on a similar journey especially in the boxing gym. This allowed us to share our experiences with one another. It was through this interaction that I was able to implement the final step, which was training in the country of origin to learn.
You created a fairly interesting trajectory for yourself. One part of which was to train each system to the highest level you can and the other to research and document each system in clinical detail.
It was very difficult. I realized early on that I bit off more than I could chew. There was a lot of working through different methods and approaches. I tried earlier variations of the Vanishing Flame sort of thing that failed miserably. I kept refining and pruning until I got to something that was sort of manageable. I say sort of manageable because it’s still way too much.
Some people might call you a traditionalist, but I know otherwise. Do you find yourself constantly being labeled or defined by others who don’t understand your journey and life?
I don’t expect people to understand my life or my journey. It’s mine to live. I have been called a traditionalist. One person in Myanmar even called me a historian. Both labels come from people who really know nothing about me. People with small minds will constantly try to define and put you into this category or that. I pay it no mind, personally. I have a mission and a goal, and I pursue it everyday. I don’t engage in gossip or wish anyone harm. I just do what I have to do.
Anyone who has spent even a minute with me knows I came to martial arts because of the environment I was growing up in. I got into fights and situations that left both mental and physical scars. I was small. I was not healthy when I was young. I did not play sports. I wanted to be a filmmaker. I studied and watched and made movies. Nothing else mattered. I found martial arts a hard path, but I needed them to protect myself. So I focused really on self-preservation. At the time, not many teachers or systems focused on combatics or self-preservation. So I needed to cultivate it myself from the systems that could provide the necessary training and through my own experimentation and development.
I challenge myself year after year. I am still training and learning decades into my martial arts career. I have had amazing teachers and experiences very few could even imagine. They kept evolving and further exploring the topics they were particularly interested in, so I followed the same path.
When I began teaching, it was really to teach self-preservation tactics in sort of the white and black or yin and yang way that I thought was seriously missing from the martial arts training given at the time. A modern product of evolution, I used anything I was able to learn, from scientific to ancient, in order to give the student the very best pathway I could. Since I have a huge index, it can serve as an endless well of information the student can access. I also found the idea of the street attack needed to constantly evolve, so I did extensive research as to how attack scenarios where happening in each country and what weapons were used. This research still goes on today.
Once a person was rooted into that, they could move into a system or systems that fit them. Now, that system could be modern or ancient or a hybrid. The solid route to becoming skilled is first to try that route for yourself, building a system or a path that works for you. It should fit like a glove. Second thing is learning to teach or learning the full system and how to teach it to another person. I learned you cannot bypass the steps and go from one to two regardless of how you good you think you are. The third level is giving back through writing or innovating new things or doing something that allows you to contribute back to the body of knowledge that was given to you. Since most people don’t have high-level training they don’t have the experience of this evolution.
So the Vanishing Flame is my third level, an investigation and training mission to give back through my own training and understanding of bare knuckle, weapons, and wrestling of Southeast Asia and India, using the documentary and my extensive writing on the topics as the vessel.
It’s very simple. If you train martial arts at the highest level, the hardest part is that it comes back to YOU. You have to accept who you are, understand yourself so you can constantly work your way down a path toward building yourself into a better person tomorrow. You are constantly confronting your fears, your sorrows, your disappointments. It’s not an easy path by any means because it goes well beyond the physical. I don’t care if you do Chinese, Japanese, Indian, or Thai systems or whatever – the path to the top is the same, and it’s a part of all of those at the highest level.
In the end for me, it’s a unique combination of ancient training and understanding along with all the things I develop and the way in which I constantly evolve in the modern way for the modern world.
You have done projects and written about Thai, Cambodian, and Indian martial culture in the past. How did Lethwei become the first maiden project for your Vanishing Flame series?
A friend approached me to do a talk and presentation on my martial arts research and training, so I assembled some of the early footage on Lethwei, but it was disjointed because it wasn’t about me and my personal journey or about the human drama of the Burmese people. It was about the art itself, which to me is a story unto itself. The only way I could string it together into a coherent whole was to use voice-over, which I hate. Worst of all, I did the voice-over myself. So there were conflicting emotions about the process I was using, but it got the job done because there was no money for anything beyond this.
I shoot everything on video. Originally, it was just a journal of my training so I had everything on tape so I could compile each system and teacher’s life in detail. It was not for a documentary, but to eventually write a book. The footage was initially hard to edit because I shot it for another purpose.
But in answering your question, this became the first maiden project because Myanmar was changing. It was transitioning toward a quasi-democracy. Lethwei was also changing, so I wanted to capture that moment in time. I was there in all of these countries before the popularity of the ancient bare-knuckle, wrestling and weapons traditions. Part of my research is to watch what happens over time with them.
Lethwei is not very well known even now. How did you come to see it or hear about it at the time?
Every year in Thailand, in the north, on the border between Thailand and Myanmar, they stage a series of bare-knuckle Myanmar vs. Thailand contests, celebrating the Songkran/Thingyan New Year holiday. They started broadcasting these fights in Thailand in the late 70’s. My friends and I in New York, used to get the tapes and were amazed at the insanity of the fight cards. I made my way there several times and began meeting the fighters and trainers.
What was your process once you decided on Lethwei? How did you immerse yourself in this world and get close to your subjects?
I do very extensive pre-production. I read, watch anything I can, build leads, cultivate relationships with people in each country and talk to anyone who has been there or has done something similar. I compile a large amount of data then begin to formulate a game plan. It is very strategic. The process is much like a storyboard but done with photos, maps and extensive notes. It is not there to be rigid, but to give me some firm steps to start with that will allow me to be pliable and responsive, aware and ready to pick up the trail wherever it might go.
First and foremost, I train with the people. I try to build rapport with them because words are sometimes meaningless in this context. How does one create trust and understanding across cultural lines and barriers? You can show someone your enthusiasm and love for something by taking part in it. Going to fights. Trying to really learn. This part for me was extremely crucial and personal. I wanted to be a student and then be a teacher when I found the right masters. I was in it for the long haul in each country. My personal goal was to reach instructor or trainer status in each art, in each country. This is why this process took a long time. It’s not only a cross-cultural study, but also very exacting presentation of each particular art and practice.
What were some of the first things you did once you got to Myanmar, to get inside the sport?
It started before then, being up in the North of Thailand during Songkran, and meeting some of the Burmese Lethwei fighters from the Myawaddy division. The fighters told me about upcoming fight cards in Myanmar, sharing information about trainers in Yangon and the Kayin State. The fighters, due to a lack of tournaments, kept on the move traveling from place to place looking for cards to fight on.
Later when I showed up at a tournament in Yangon, many of the fighters I met earlier, greeted me warmly and introduced me to others on the circuit.
I would check with them about filming, and they would help clear it for me. I am heavily indebted to these fighters because they opened the first doors for me. It was up to me from then on to continue to maintain relationships that would help with my work.
What about the actual training?
I spent an inordinate amount of time training Lethwei, the weapons and wrestling in rotation. In Lethwei, you had certain time periods where training would be going on full time during the earlier periods before the opening of the country. Lethwei training, in general, would ramp up close to tournaments or be looser like 3 days a week or just on weekends in between. This is why Mandalay was great. There were a bunch of phenomenal Lethwei teachers there. They all loved to teach so you could get great training every day of the week. This immersion, especially with the older masters, was outstanding. Great teachers like the late Saya U Pyi Kyaw would bring out photographs and explain them in detail to you. He would take you back in time giving you a visual and oral history lesson. Now of course, Lethwei camps are training daily sometimes twice a day, so it’s fairly easy to find the training you want.
What was your approach in capturing the live events and practice sessions?
You can see most of the time people who film martial arts really try for a polished performance, as opposed to a sometimes raw presentation of the art or fighting sport. I am less interested in physical education rigor or theatrical performance in my documentary work. I want it to be honest and from the heart, rather than polished and rehearsed for the camera. If it’s polished and good, then so be it. But I rather get it with the live energy percolating through the movement. Just letting it be, as it is.
The camera and taking notes, doing interviews and putting together the system or training plans comes next. I don’t pull out a camera until I feel the time is right. It becomes a natural extension of who I am, in relation to them. If you do it correctly, they accept the camera presence as they accept me.
This process took a long time to develop and cultivate. Many times, I worked with bands that didn’t want to be filmed or disliked the camera. But if I got them to like me and warm up to the camera, I could create an environment and shooting style that would work for both of us. So much so, that those who even hated being filmed would say “You missed what happened yesterday, where were you” which always made me laugh. They eventually became comfortable enough with the process, that they wanted to be filmed all the time.
Still the problem exists in how do you move around and freely film, while being heavily monitored within the country?
I knew I’d be monitored within Myanmar but how heavily or persistently, and what would happen as a result was a complete mystery. Would they confiscate my material, eject me from the country or would I just get lectured about how to behave as others had experienced before me? My experience ultimately was a little different. It’s quite odd thinking back to it.
I didn’t realize at first what was happening. People who I enjoyed being with where falling away. Refusing to return my calls or see me. It seemed everywhere I went, a shadow followed that crumbled the path I was walking on.
I was later told in a small Yangon tea shop by my Burmese friend, what had happened. People were visited right after I left and had been interrogated about my presence. They were scared that if I came back, it could get worse for them. Some were threatened. I realized I needed to formulate a stronger game plan. In the other countries, I always worked with the military who were heavily involved in martial arts activities, and could open doors for me. I couldn’t do that here. Americans were despised by the military, especially those with cameras, filming and documenting things.
I decided to align myself with the remnants of the Olympic boxing team that was in tatters from extreme neglect and lack of high-level participation in global events. Things immediately started to move in the right direction when I did this.
I had to accept that I’d be monitored. I also had to be more vocal and honest about why I was there. After time and multiple visits, it became clear I was not there to start trouble. I didn’t write about the situations or mention anything then, as not call attention to what I was doing, or involve others on the ground due to things I said. It’s one of the reasons the material stayed locked up for so long.
Where there any moments that you felt things got frightening or way out of hand?
Yes, there were many. This part would actually warrant a full interview, because just this topic alone, to explain and cover what transpired would take time. It’s Myanmar, and nothing is easy to explain. I take a lot of risks in my professional career, maybe too many. Any success thus far has been invariably linked to my willingness to take those risks. There were times when I had to take a second to think about how far I was willing to push things.
Remember, Lethwei is the smallest part of this journey. I did more work on Naban, Thaing and the spiritual and healing traditions than Lethwei. So it’s much more extensive and deeper than just the sports coverage.
One incident though that remains vivid happened in Mandalay. I previously had a close call when I got too excited seeing a chain gang working below me, and tried to grab some footage of the situation. An alarm went off. A parade of people came charging at me, but I darted away before they could get anywhere near me.
A month later, I went to visit some of the Burmese Pongyi or monks who trained with the Black Buffalo Thaing school. The monks trained at midnight away from the prying eyes of the military. I was invited to stay with them for a few days. When I got to the base of their temple, there was a tank blocking the entrance, with several armed and agitated soldiers pointing guns everywhere. A noisy, flat-bed truck whizzed by me, and I caught a glimpse of what looked like bodies piled up in the back. When I looked at the ground, there was a trail of blood seeping out the back of the truck.
My Burmese research assistant and I were trapped because we couldn’t turn around. I told him to tell it straight to the soldiers, that were going to visit our friends in the temple. This didn’t translate well because as a foreigner visiting a temple where there was evident trouble, meant I might have been there to document the incident, or get the monks message out. This event I later learned, was part of a protest by the monks during a visit by the United Nations. They wanted to show the UN officials, that the military was still secretly cracking down on them and executing monks at will. But the protest never got very far, because the military locked down the temples, killing those who had gotten out.
The young soldiers kept their guns on us. They said there was a curfew starting now for me. I was to report back to my hotel and stay there. On the way back, I decided I’d go to my room, throw my bags out the window and get out there. I had already paid for my room, so I gave some money to a young kid to run the door key back.
We determined that the safest bet was to head north to Myitkyina in the Kachin state since there was no trouble there. We hired a car to drive us, but this was not the best choice. The person was a simple animistic who was raised in a very primitive culture, but he was the best driver who knew the route, driving it daily. He was fearful of a particular part of the jungle where a spirit supposedly comes out and calls to him. He said he speeds up to avoid it because it’s sure death if the spirit gets to him. I warned him not to speed up or do anything insane like that since I was in the front seat with all my camera gear and belongings.
Unfortunately, I fell asleep and the next thing I know my head cracks hard into the side window, waking me up to the sight that we are now airborne. For some reason, the car doesn’t overturn but lands back down on all four wheels. My head is struck again and my bags and cameras sail right out of my hands. I have whiplash. My neck becomes tighter and tighter. My camera is damaged. The lens has cracked off the body. It’s a total disaster. I only remember being body tackled by the other people in the car because it was the one moment I wanted to kill someone. So in fleeing from one horror, I was met with another. There are many more like that.
How does the sport of Lethwei survive through all these critical changes in the country?
Its survival rested with the rural communities who kept it alive through their annual festivals and holidays. Lethwei contests have been a part of those celebrations for centuries. I feel one must experience Lethwei at the festivals to gain a deeper understanding of the ancient roots and cultural resonance the sport has in the lives of those growing up outside of places like Yangon. At one time, Lethwei was a part of a rite of passage into manhood for many young men growing up in these rural communities. A boy could proudly display his strength and virility during these contests to his family and community, while earning money and gaining a reputation as a fighter.
In Yangon, as documented in Born Warriors(Part One), a small group of promoters, trainers and fighters, worked tirelessly to sponsor Lethwei tournaments in the major arenas. They were working hard to put on exciting events and promote the sport. But they were shackled by a lack of support and governmental control. The promoters had to work through a lot of red tape. A show could be canceled at the last minute due to the whims of the military. They could do this because any public gatherings had to be cleared, and would be called off if they felt there was any danger in holding the event.
When the country started opening up, many of the original promoters and trainers that were still actively involved in Lethwei, again tried to reinvigorate the sport. But this time there was a massive influx of outside businesspeople who saw the sport more as a commodity. It was just an investment to them. Even greedy government agencies saw a way to get cut in on the proceedings. The money that came in from different sources went toward larger shows that began to raise the visibility of the sport in the major arenas in Yangon and Mandalay. Several of the bigger shows were televised live and shown as far away as Singapore. This saw the sport flourish.
The importance of Myanmar for the study of bare-knuckle fighting is that it has remained an ongoing tradition that survived, despite insurmountable odds against it. It maintains the ancient roots in the rural communities while pursuing modern ideas in the big arenas.
Born Warriors was shot over a long period of time. It must have been frustrating trying to hold it together for so long. Did you ever want to give up?
It’s not about giving up but seeing how you can get each project done. There’s a myriad of paths. Can what you have transition or morph into something else, or be part of another body of work? Or are you going to stick with it and grind it out? Documentaries don’t come together the same way as other projects. They seem to move you in the direction they need to go in. A person or event can suddenly become a catalyst for a renewed attack on a premise. Sometimes you still hit a dead end, despite your best efforts. One thing is that these type of projects take time to do. Born Warriors really died and needed to be resuscitated with a new approach. Some of the footage was damaged, while there were format and shooting changes from SD to HD. We had no money and no interest, so I just pushed ahead and tried to do what I could. It was very frustrating, but the challenge of it kept me going. It took years of work.
Where did you draw your inspiration?
The inspiration comes from the world and culture I am exploring, and the people themselves. I was very inspired by the work of Werner Herzog during this time. He has his own way of viewing the documentary film. His body of work is fearless, and he doesn’t shy away from the dangers of prolonged physical journeys. I had the rare privilege of meeting him early on in my career. Errol Morris, another great documentarian and a wonderful human being, allowed me to rent his edit room to finish a small narrative project I directed. He was very gracious with his time and allowed me to sit in and talk with him when he was free. One day when he was out, someone was pounding on the door. It was Werner Herzog. He of course in the absence of hunting down Errol, had to follow me around and interrogate me to see what I was working on. It lead to some fascinating conversations, especially when Errol returned to meet with him. It’s those moments that are invariably etched in my mind. They help you at just the right time in your life.
What I got most from Herzog beyond his obvious intelligence and filmmaking ability, was his fierce determination never to quit. It’s hard to give up. It’s not part of my nature. I put some much into everything I do. But sometimes a project can get the better of you, no matter how much you love it. I was lucky that this time, that I was able to see it through to the end. It wasn’t easy by any means. Regardless of what happens from here. I accomplished what I set out to do, and to me that’s all that counts.
What is next for you?
I continue to travel to Southeast Asia and India several times a year to update my training and research. The Vanishing Flame work will continue to produce new releases that will follow the Born Warriors project.
I am working on several dramatic feature films that I will hopefully direct in the near future. Some are based in Southeast Asia and India. Regardless, my quest to be the best that I can be in all facets of life drives me every day to keep climbing the mountain. I am excited to see what the future holds. I love life because I am never without an idea in my head that I want to pursue with absolute passion. I hope all this enthusiasm and love comes through my work because I want to share it with everyone who comes in contact with it.
The original edited two part interview appears on the Martial Arts & Action Entertainment website:
Born Warriors Documentarian Vincent Giordano Interview Part 1
Born Warriors Documentarian Vincent Giordano Interview Part 1
© 2016, Guillermo Xegarra