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Billy Moore's story: Drugs, violence, doing time in the Bangkok Hilton, and redemption through Muay Thai boxing

There was even more drama to come – and his story is told in a new film out this weekend.

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BILLY MOORE WAS dealt a tough hand in life.

The Liverpool man had a difficult upbringing, which culminated in him getting involved in drugs. His addiction led to crimes like burglary, dangerous driving and theft, which culminated in prison sentences in the UK.

So in 2005, wanting to make a fresh start, Moore decided to leave for Thailand.

But going to Asia did not mean that he could throw off the shackles of the addiction which had gripped him. Though initially he did not use drugs, he relapsed and was arrested and charged with possessing stolen goods and a firearm.

He spoke a little Thai, but it was not enough to ensure that when he landed in the infamous ‘Bangkok Hilton’ prison that he could understand everything that was going on. While there, he witnessed some terrible scenes, like violence and sexual assault. He slept in a row alongside tens of other prisoners in a sweatbox of a cell, and had to fight to get his allocation of fresh water.

But then he fell into boxing, taking part in Muay Thai tournaments while in jail, and this helped him on his journey to leaving prison. He was driven to get involved in the sport, to help him focus his mind.

“I need to fight,” he told the boxing organisers when begging them for a chance to take part.

“I’ve got no family, no money – just give me this one chance. I wanna fight.”

A Prayer Before Dawn

Source: A24/YouTube

Now Moore’s story is being told in a visceral and violent film, A Prayer Before Dawn, directed by New York-based French director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire. Sauvaire’s clearly got a fascination with the dark side of human behaviour – his last film was Johnny Mad Dog, about child soldiers in Liberia.

In A Prayer Before Dawn, Moore is played by rising actor Joe Cole, who was last seen in Black Mirror. He doesn’t get to speak much, so it’s his body and face that do most of the talking. His beefed-up figure and clenched jaw show what he’s going through.

The film is dark and at times claustrophobic. As Sauvaire uses handheld cameras, the viewer really feels like they are there alongside Moore in the cell.

“I like when you go into cinema to be immersed,” says Sauvaire when TheJournal.ie tells the director how intense we found viewing the movie.

He first came across Moore’s story when a producer sent him a copy of A Prayer Before Dawn, the boxer’s memoir of his time in prison. “He knew I would be curious to read the book so I read it and then I met with Billy, because I thought the story is amazing, but I really need to see who is behind the book and who is this guy,” says Sauvaire.

If you have to make a film, a true story, you have to respond to the person [it is about]. I met Billy and I fell in love with him. He is a very sensitive, sensorial guy, ready to cry at any moment. At the same time he has this violence and brutality in his childhood. He was beaten by his father and was taking a lot of drugs. He was broken in a way, but a really interesting guy.

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Real gang members

What makes the film even more remarkable is that all of the men playing the prisoners and guards are real people. The tattooed gang members Billy meets in the film are themselves former gang members.

“They are all non-professional actors,” explains Sauvaire. “Former prisoners who spent 10 – 15 years in jail. [The film was] a way for them to tell their story, their life experience, their prison experience.”

He saw the film as a form of therapy for the prisoners, a way to release the violence and trauma they experienced.

He also, he says, wanted things to be realistic. “Not violence for violence’s sake. To show the survival violence. Violence in cinema, most of the time you are not affected – you watch terrible stuff but you don’t feel it,” he explains. “For me that is a mistake, you need to see the violence to fight the violence, and show it is not the solution to anything. Billy uses the violence as his weapon.”

It’s not through the violence that Billy Moore wins – it’s through boxing and the community.

Sauvaire wants the violence and sexual assault in his film to affect people, not to leave them cold. With that in mind, some viewers will find some scenes in the movie upsetting.

There was a big emphasis on trust between Sauvaire and the former prisoners while shooting the film. It took a year and a half of casting to find them, and there was an initial fear on set that the actors would turn up for the first day but not come back again. But Sauvaire says he built up enough trust with them that this did not occur.

“They were the most dedicated actors on film. When you build up this trust it’s amazing – they give everything,” he says. “They wanted to share, they wanted to show. They were showing me improvisation, I was really surprised to see how much they were dedicated.”

He says it was “really moving to see these guys recreating all these scenes with no taboo”.

People as humans

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Sauvaire didn’t want to make the film in a binary way, to show that some people are ‘good’ and some are ‘bad’. “I like to show people as human beings – you can be on the wrong side sometimes, there is always a reason for that. You can’t say they are bad and they should stay in prison their whole life,” he says.

One moving moment came when the film premiered in Cannes, and a cast member attended. He was so taken aback during the standing ovation at the end that he started crying.

“He told me, ‘for the first time people recognised who I am and what I did, not just the bad guy’,” says Sauvaire.

For me it was really moving. That is why I do films sometimes, to have this human being experience, sharing with people.

Cole thoroughly immersed himself in the role, says the director.  “Joe [had] to lose all the stuff he could know about acting and having a partner, a professional actor,” says Sauvaire. “He was getting immersed in the reality and he was really brave because he had fight scenes, street fight scenes, boxing scenes, everyday. Physically it was very tough because he had to do stuff everyday. He was brave.”

Cole did intense boxing training in the months leading up to the filming, and even took on some professional boxers in the ring. “He did a great job and that’s why I think his performance is so amazing, because he really gave everything he could in this film,” says Sauvaire. “It was amazing to work with him.”

Billy Moore’s life is full of twists and turns, and it took yet another unfortunate one after the film was completed.

Though he attended the film premiere at Cannes, he won’t be attending the UK premiere – as he’s in jail. After being diagnosed with cancer, he fell again into addiction and was imprisoned after stealing from his next-door neighbour’s house.

He is currently in prison in Liverpool. Sauvaire is still in contact with him and says Moore is happy with the film’s success. “I regret he won’t be with us for the UK premiere but at least he is really proud of the film. And we had a great connection with Billy, he was really supportive in the film,” says Sauvaire.

“It’s tragic, addiction – it’s a kind of crazy vicious circle,” adds Sauvaire. But he believes Billy Moore has achieved something with this film being made about his life. Now, he is “being recognised and telling his story”. Sauvaire hopes that Moore’s health and life circumstances will improve. But is is glad to have played a role in telling his incredible story.

A Prayer Before Dawn (A24) is in cinemas now.

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