TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID
Starring: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López
Written by: Issa López
Directed by: Issa López
“Why do you have wishes?”
Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017) is a dark fantasy film that takes place in present-day Mexico, where a group of children are devastated by the horrific violence of the drug cartels. The film opens with a familiar scene. A teacher asks her students to list fairy-tale elements. A number of items are listed: wishes and magic, princes and princesses, and tigers. One of the students, Estrella, played by Paola Lara (El Chema, La Siberia), begins to tell viewers a fairy tale about tigers and princes. This fanciful story is paired with information about drug wars and ghost towns — right away establishing the film’s medium: magical realism. Similar to Guillermo del Toro’s films like Pan’s Labyrinth, Tigers are Not Afraid follows the Hispanic magical-realism tradition of using magical elements in everyday settings as a way to comment on or reflect on reality.
The fairy tale is interrupted by an attack on the school. Estrella returns home to find her mother gone, presumably dead, as an imagined (or real?) trail of blood travels across the floor. Alone and hungry, fearing for her life from the infamous drug lord Chino, Estrella encounters a group of children like her. The group of boys is led by the brave and worldly-wise El Shine (played by Juan Ramón López), who is not so sure that they should let a girl join their crew. As if their lives weren’t in enough danger, El Shine made the mistake of stealing a phone and a gun. So this gang of children has an extra-large target on their back. So, what do they task Estrella with? Killing Chino, of course, and proving herself to be a “man.”
What follows is Estrella’s status as a type of folk hero, capable of making wishes to improve their situation. As the group of children journey from place to place, trying to stay safe, they depend on stories to both bring them comfort and to show them the way out. This film beautifully pays homage to the dark nature of fairy tales that is often overlooked in the context of children. Various scenes balance childlike play with gravity in interesting ways. For example, there is a moment when they kids are telling spooky stories with a flashlight, laughing and teasing each other. In this same scene, we are reminded that El Shine is holding a gun, highlighting this tension between childlike fun and imminent danger.
The world that Issa López creates in Tigers Are Not Afraid is wonderfully reminiscent of classic fairy-tale tropes: abandoned children, quests, and even talking-animal mentors. Furthermore, it brilliantly complicates these familiar elements by setting them in a very real social and political climate. From the first scene, viewers are immediately drawn into this world, and that is in large part due to the talented acting, affecting visuals, and haunting audio.
The film almost has the feel of a documentary, simply because Lara and López (in addition to the other child actors) are so believable in the roles that they are playing. Furthermore, the visual elements of the film help to establish that this world is being told from the viewpoint of children. For example, as they are telling stories, the graffiti comes to life to animate the tales. And at one point a stuffed animal comes to life to give them direction. Each component — no matter how fanciful — is done in such a way that it never takes you out of the gravity of the situation. The audio is executed to similar effect. The fantastical music and varied cat sound effects firmly ground the viewer in the film, hooking you in from start to finish.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is one of several featured films being shown at the fourth Final Girls Berlin Film Festival, which runs from January 31, 2019, to February 3. The festival exists to showcase horror cinema created by women, like Issa López (Efectos secundarios, Casi divas, Tigers Are Not Afraid). Check out the full program for the festival here.