Tigers are Not Afraid Paola Lara Juan Ramón López

Year: 2017 (2019 US release)
Director(s): Issa Lopez
Writer(s): Issa Lopez
Region of Origin: Mexico
Rating: R
Color, 83 mins

Synopsis: A gang of children fight to survive the cartels that ravage their town. (Source)

The Mexican drug wars have long been an easy target for filmmakers looking to create gritty, hyper masculine tales of inhumane savagery. Now that Mexico and this issue has become sensationalized fodder for a racist, power-hungry administration, it’s time that we saw things from a more humane perspective. That necessary exploration comes by way of Issa Lopez’ Tigers are Not Afraid. Blending horror, spirituality and childlike innocence, Lopez’ film takes a look at the drug wars’ human cost. In particular, Lopez sets her sights on orphaned children, left behind in crumbling cities as the adults in their drug-ravaged town continually go missing. Armed with a genuine sense of melancholy and surreal, fairy tale flourishes, Lopez’ film is as imaginative and beautiful as it is shocking. It’s also not just impeccably timed, but necessary. 

While at school one day, Estrella (Paola Lara) and her classmates are caught within a deadly crossfire. This isn’t anything new for Estrella and her friends, though, each of whom are used to the local drug wars spilling into their daily lives. While ducking for cover, her teacher gives her three pieces of chalk, promising her that they hold the power of three wishes. Picking herself up after the shooting, she walks home only to spend the night alone and in the dark. Estrella’s mother never comes home, and the next morning she’s forced to confront the idea of never seeing her again. She quickly falls in with a band of orphans lead by El Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez). Together, the group forges a new family, using Estrella’s wishes to band together against the town’s kingpin. 

Lopez’s story is rich with symbolism and ideas, transcending classification with a contrast of extremes. Above all, she puts us straight into Estrella’s shoes, mashing up utterly bleak circumstance with genuine sincerity. It’s Estrella’s urgent reality that pushes the narrative forward, building stakes and character through a dense, ofttimes surreal world. Within all of this, playful, spontaneous moments of connection offset gut-punching spurts of violence and pain. As things ratchet up and Estrella’s crew are hunted, her wishes and their consequences show the permanence of death but also the comfort we find in each other. From a horror perspective, the film is refreshing because it understands that ghosts aren’t scary because of their ability to catch us off guard, but because of the loss and memories attached to them. 

Tigers are Not Afraid Ramón López

With ideas rooted deeply in its young characters, the cast is paramount and up to task. The film’s entire heart and soul lies within Paola Lara and Juan Ramon Lopez. Though Lara gets carries most of the film and is its entry point, both her and Lopez are indispensable. Together, they create a tenuous bond that breathes and contracts like their surroundings. Having to balance both hardened pain and a softer, more disarming charm, both surprise as much as the film’s twists and turns. 

With a focus on humanity first and foremost, Lopez’s film is unclassifiable, splicing magical realism with despair, pain and hope. This makes Tigers are Not Afraid a film that defiantly celebrates the spark of life, despite the spectre of death that hangs over each scene. Lopez’s look at how life overcomes devastation is full of heart and wholly affecting. With cultural roots and mythical storytelling, Lopez’s film is special and purposeful. Her eye for atmosphere and a beating, bloody heart for purity makes this is a rare type of horror film. This is a necessary reminder that there is something within us that the darkness can never take away.