A look at prison muay Thai

A scene from A Prayer Before Dawn. Photo courtesy of Festival de Cannes

Thailand is splashed across the main screen of the Cannes Film Festival this year. A Prayer Before Dawn is not a Thai film, but this UK-France production takes place entirely in Thailand — precisely in the rancid, violence-prone prison where inmates are crammed into small dormitories and fight to stay alive. Based on a book by ex-convict William Moore, who spent years at Klong Prem Prison for selling ya ba, the film, directed by Jean-Stephane Sauvaire, is an intense look at hard life in the hellhole, before Moore (played by British actor Joe Cole) finds redemption in the prison’s muay Thai boxing programme.

Cannes’ official screening was warmly received, with mostly positive reviews by the press. Three Thai actors also walked the red carpet: Vithaya Pansringarm (playing a warden), Pornchanok Mabklang (playing a transvestite inmate), and Panya Yimumphai (playing the inmate chief).

We caught up with French director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire in Cannes.

How did the project take off?

The UK producer contacted me about a script based on a true story set in Thailand, which is about boxing, addiction, prison. That’s the kind of thing I like. In 1994, I travelled for two months in Thailand [on holiday with a film crew]. I always dreamed about shooting in Thailand. So I read the first script, then the book by William Moore. As a filmmaker, I’m interested in real stories, to find a chance to mix the documentary style and fiction, and this is it.

There have already been many boxing films and prison films. How did you visualise A Prayer Before Dawn?

I didn’t want to make just one more prison film or one more boxing movie. I was interested in doing a realistic film, to film the boxing fights in the prison as authentically and realistically as possible. Working with ex-prisoners and non-professional actors made it possible. When I contacted [the Thai production-service team], they said we could have actors and build a prison in a studio. And I said the only way to do this film is to make it realistic, and I want to share the experiences of these guys, to talk about their lives and give them a second chance.

The film doesn’t show a flattering image of Thailand, but it also feels authentic. How did you approach the sensitive subject in the story?

From the perspective of a Frenchman, Thailand is about landscape, the beach, the culture and the smile — that clichéd experience. But behind the smiles are real human beings. Thais have such great integrity. At the same time, it’s difficult get inside the real Thai culture. For me to do this film, you have a responsibility to respect the country and the people, and the only way to do it in a respectful and honest way, even if it’s a prison movie, is to spend time in Thailand, to understand Thai people, and [to let] them tell the story.

You cast a number of real convicts in the film. How did the casting go?

We spent almost a year in the casting, and I met prisoners every week. I first met Chalermpron Sawadsuk, or M, a well-known boxer who spent time in prison. He told me how he became a better guy by joining a boxing team in prison. He introduced me to some friends. I looked at his Facebook friends — all of them are ex-convicts — and I cast other guys [from prison]. I tried to get information about their lives, then we rewrote the script and avoided all the stereotypes.

Did you have any problem getting the permit to shoot?

I knew it was a sensitive subject, and I wasn’t sure at the beginning. We explained [to the Thailand Film Office] about the way I want to do the film. I said I didn’t want to portray only the dark side or to show that this is the worst prison in the world as in Hollywood movies, but I want to show the humanity and the culture of Thai boxing as well. If I want to do a film projecting a bad image, I won’t come to Thailand. I’d go to Vietnam or the Philippines [to film the story]. But it’s not my intention to do that. And they understood.

Did you research a lot of prison in Thailand?

We shot in an old prison in Nakon Pathom after they built a new prison. I went to different prisons in Thailand [with the help of] the Corrections Department. We visited prisons that have boxing programmes, and they were very organised. We even used some of the real guards in the film.

In the book, Moore converts to Islam. In the film, he finds spirituality through Buddhism.

The first script had this part. What’s interesting, however, is to create a society in the prison — there are the boxing team, the Muslim inmates, the Buddhist inmates, etc. For me it’s more interesting to have Billy find his spirituality in Buddhism.

We portray Billy [as he goes through] chaos, rage, when he’s almost like an animal, to how he finds peace. And it’s the Thai people in the prison who help him and give him love, not the UK people and not his parents. The film shows that prison is not the worst place, but it’s where he can find himself and his freedom.