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Thirty-year-old independent filmmaker Susanne Cornwall had lived in the District for less than three months when car thieves made off with her 1990 Dodge Shadow. Little did she realize how grand theft auto would change her life.

“I used the money the insurance company gave me to go to Bangkok,” admits Cornwall, who on that 1997 trip experienced her first taste of Muay Thai—a controversial and sometimes brutal full-contact sport whose fighters employ a full range of punches, kicks, and knee and elbow strikes in a struggle to incapacitate their opponents.

“This one guy got kicked right in the face and knocked out,” Cornwall recalls. “I was blown away. The mixture of culture and religion and pure athletic power is amazing. It’s brutal, but it’s beautiful at the same time. I knew there was a story there.”

Nearly six years later, that story has evolved into the 50-minute documentary film Thai Boxing: A Fighting Chance, which enjoys its U.S. premiere March 11 here in D.C.

“I had always wanted to make a documentary, but it didn’t click until I [returned from Thailand] that this was the subject I wanted to do it on,” says Cornwall. Nevertheless, she concedes that it took years before she could muster the resources and courage to move ahead with the project. “The hardest thing was actually deciding to do it,” she laughs. “At one point, I had this list of all the things I had to do [before I could start making the film], and then I just wrote myself this note at the bottom: ‘It’s not Am I going to do this? It’s how I’m going to do this.’”

In July 2000, after securing a bit of seed money from the National Geographic Society—where she was working as a documentary researcher—and cashing out her life savings, Cornwall flew with her film crew to Bangkok for 17 “4 a.m. to 10 p.m.” days of shooting. With nearly 55 hours of footage in the can as a result, Cornwall eventually chose to focus on the struggles of three unlikely protagonists: Gong Prai, an impoverished 13-year-old boy who boxes to support his family and pay for his schooling; Sam Sheridan, an American Harvard graduate who is training at Bangkok’s top dojo in preparation for his Thai boxing debut; and Boon Term, a 29-year-old housewife who has separated from her husband and family to learn Muay Thai now that the traditional ban on women’s combat has been lifted.

“I totally identified with all the characters,” says Cornwall, who affectionately refers to her film as an “ode to the underdog—everybody involved in this documentary had something to prove.”

Like most people with a DIY project, Cornwall recruited assistance from those closest to her, including her boyfriend, Andy Carvin. “Ultimately, [it] brought us closer together,” Cornwall says of the year-plus they spent editing the film in their apartment—during which time Carvin proposed. And curiously enough, the stresses of shoestring filmmaking made planning for their upcoming wedding that much easier. “Now I’m like, Oh, $3,000 for a caterer; at least it’s not as expensive as that check I wrote for Thai Boxing.”

Cornwall, now working as an associate producer on National Geographic film and video projects, remains tight-lipped about any plans for another documentary, preferring for the moment to bask in the glory of having completed her first. “For two years I was awake every night for at least an hour or two, just thinking about [the film],” she says. “Seriously, it’s been a relief just to sleep.” —Paul Armentano

Thai Boxing: A Fighting Chance screens at noon Tuesday,

March 11, at the National Geographic Society’s Gilbert Grosvenor Auditorium, 1145 17th St. NW. Free. For more information, call (202) 857-7700.