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The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Jacob Warman finds family through filmmaking

Jacob Warman

For six weeks, visual media arts senior Jacob Warman called Khlong Toei in Bangkok, Thailand, home. He didn’t realize that among the foreign roads and faces, he’d soon feel a sense of brotherhood with three children Muay Thai fighters, a connection fostered by Warman’s longing to tell stories through film. 

Warman’s documentary follows the story of three brothers from Khlong Toei: eight-year-old Mekha Nilto (Bas), 14-year-old Pakhaphong Nilto (Pae), and 16-year-old Pattarapon Nilto (Poy). Khlong Toei is the largest and considered the most dangerous district in Thailand, but Warman came to see past such misconceptions.

Warman wanted to explore the world of Muay Thai fighting, a form of martial arts, through his camera lens. He was originally set to fly to Phuket to interview international Muay Thai fighters. Still, after reading a Vice article on a fighter in Khlong Toei who’s been rising the ranks, he changed his flight a week before the trip. In July of 2023, Warman flew alone to Khlong Toei with $10,000 in equipment and no real plan. 

“We went from originally being a much smaller scale project, going over to Phuket, working with just international fighters in a more touristy area,” Warman said. “Went from that to finding genuinely stunning, beautiful, heart-wrenching stories that are authentically Thai.” 

Upon landing, Warman was met with his first challenge: he doesn’t speak Thai. Walking down the streets of Bangkok, he ran into a translator who agreed to help him with the project. Warman visited a youth training center in Khlong Toei and saw Bas, his small frame punching a heavy bag bigger than him, the contents nearly spilling over the duct tape holding it together.

“He was one of the most talented fighters I’ve ever seen,” Warman said.

Warman spoke with the head coach, Phichat Phaophong (Uncle Lek), who adopted the brothers and has dedicated his life to raising and training them despite battling a life-threatening heart condition. Uncle Lek shared with Warman stories of the young boys, including how they grew up around people struggling with drug addiction and slept on the floor with 21 other people, lines of meth adjacent to their sleeping heads.

“They’re fighting for a better future,” Warman said. “It’s beautiful in a sense because there’s this Khlong Toei youth center, so it’s a safe haven of sorts for kids that, described by Uncle Lek, are from broken families. In the midst of all this chaos, the dangers of drugs, gambling, gang violence, there’s this little pocket of hope that teaches them discipline and puts a roof over their head.”  

The oldest brother, Poy, was the first to get involved with Muay Thai. Warman said Poy’s motivation to fight was to afford baby formula for his little brother. This bond between the three is one Warman came to recognize during his time with them. However, he had to gain their trust to learn the brothers’ stories. Their language barrier hindered his verbal communication, so Warman conveyed his interest in their lives by acting as a “fly on the wall.” Warman played video games with the brothers in truck beds on road trips to fights; he watched Pae message his brothers before their matches, and hopped on the backs of motorcycles to attend post-fight celebrations. 

“I’m treating their stories as something sacred, and I believe that translated beyond language,” Warman said. “I became part of a team. That’s a real beauty of fighting, of not just fighting, but martial arts as a whole. This is a family that has each other’s backs no matter what. Along the way, through partaking in this journey with them, I became a part of that family.” 

Warman also gained trust by demonstrating his knowledge of martial arts. His interest in martial arts started in high school when he moved to Brownsville in Brooklyn, New York, a time he described as a “very tumultuous part of my life.” He felt like he was living in a “constant state of chaos” by being surrounded by violence in his neighborhood. He felt a need to know self-defense. Warman started by watching Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and resonating with the underdog mentality fighters embodied. 

“Since I can remember, fighters have always been my hero,” Warman said. “A lot of people when they look at fighting, they just think violence and brawling, but what I see is an unwavering spirit and a will to overcome.” 

A little over a year ago, Warman started training at a UFC gym in Boston. He described his first few visits as embarrassing because he felt out of shape compared to the other fighters. Warman adopted the mindset that “you only fail if you give up,” eventually making training a routine and losing 40 pounds. 

“The biggest thing for me is I never fit into a particular community or group of people,” Warman said. “But fighting, it’s truly a family of people. It’s gotten to the point where anywhere I go in the world, if there’s a fight gym, I know I have family. That’s why I knew that I could just go to Thailand and find family. I was fortunately proven to be right.”

Warman’s days in Bangkok often lasted 15 hours. He woke up in his $11-a-night hostel, trained with professional Muay Thai fighters, and took the 20-minute ride to Khlong Toei to film. The brothers compete twice a month, so Warman rode with them and Uncle Lek to fights, road trips that typically spanned five hours. 

“This documentary is so close to my heart because I wasn’t in some fancy hotel taking Ubers over there,” Warman said. “I was really there for six weeks training every day, getting closer to their spirituality and philosophies and understanding them so I can properly tell their story.” 

During the filming process, Warman recognized an element of human nature that he feels is lacking in the representation of the Muay Thai community. 

“People try to pigeonhole them into these very two-dimensional archetypes that’s easy and ready to consume for American audiences,” Warman said. “But my goal was to show the beauty of martial arts and their will to overcome their situation, and not just to show the struggle, but also the beautiful moments of bliss in between the chaos.”

Warman noticed the stigmatization extended beyond the fighting community, but to Khlong Toei as a whole. The first time Warman traveled from Bangkok to Khlong Toei, the driver asked him “Why are you coming here?” because of the perceived dangerous nature of the area. At 8 a.m., alone with equipment in tow, Warman walked past roosters and children riding on motorbikes to school to find a local coffee shop. A group in the coffee shop called him over and bought Warman free beer and conversed with him about his experiences in the area.

“Everyone said this is the most dangerous place, but I was only treated with kindness and respect,” Warman said. “Another big thing is showing the beauty of Thai culture. They’re really proud people and for good reason.” 

Warman picked up on a misconception perpetuated in the media that Muay Thai fighters and martial arts, in general, are characterized by violence. He wants to show that the art of fighting runs more profoundly than the physical action of it. Warman noted how, behind the swinging punches, Bas, and his brothers, are children. Bas plays soccer, enjoys ice cream cones with friends at massage appointments before fights, and shoots BB guns into ponds. Warman sought to highlight the human behind the fighter.

“I was looking recently at these articles. They want to show all the bad things about a place, about a people, but they don’t show those tender moments of joy that humanizes it all,” Warman said. “This is a big goal, to show a three-dimensional portrayal of who they are rather than just the things that they do. … I think that’s going to be the beauty of this doc, that it’s not about fighting. It’s about the brothers’ stories and what they’re fighting for.” 

Interdisciplinary studies senior Zachary Friedman visited Warman during the last two weeks in Bangkok to assist him with recording audio. Warman also worked with Jordan Kernke, the documentary’s producer, and Emerson alum Madeline Kennedy, the post-production producer.

“I think it’s going to be huge for showing just how crazy the world is of Muay Thai in Thailand, just how different the culture is and how lucky a lot of people in America are to be living the way they do,” Friedman said. “I think it’s just gonna go to show cultural differences and really open the eyes to other parts of the world.”

Warman is creating a GoFundMe for the brothers as part of the documentary, with all proceeds going to them. He also seeks to gain exposure for the cause through his clothing brand, KnuckleHead, by creating a special collection that features the original designs of the three brothers.

“We can really change their lives for the better,” Warman said.

Post-production of the documentary is expected to be complete by the end of June. When the picture’s locked, Warman wants to submit it for film festivals and pitch it as a TV show where he travels worldwide and tells fighter stories. 

“At this point in my life, this is my life’s work,” Warman said. “It’s all of my passions intertwined with filmmaking, martial arts, the underdog story. There’s a tremendous amount of responsibility because I truly consider Bas, Pae, and Poy to be my little brothers. They are family.”

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About the Contributor
Bridget Frawley
Bridget Frawley, Staff Writer
Bridget Frawley (she/her) is a freshman journalism major from Jupiter, Florida. When she is not writing for the news section, she is a morning anchor for Mornings with George Knight of WERS 88.9 FM. She also loves reading, going on long walks, and thrifting.

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