For years the horrific cinematic fairy tale has mainly been the work of few directors, well only one director actually comes to my mind. However, a new voice has emerged. As much as one can emerge after 25 years of work. Issa Lopez and her new film, ‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’, is a heartbreaking & heartwarming story of lost children and their journey to regain a strength they’ve forgotten and an innocence that was stolen from them.
The film opens with text about the current gang and cartel situation in Mexico. We’re told hundreds of thousands have died, while tens of thousands have simply gone missing. Our story begins in a class of student’s learning about fairy tales and writing their own. Estrella, who is portrayed by Paola Lara, is writing about a young prince who has forgotten he is a tiger and therefore he has forgotten he is a prince. Estrella cannot finish her own fairy tale before the reality of the violence outside their school comes crashing in. The children hit the floor in a heartbreaking way that suggests this occurrence is far too common. Estrella’s teacher hands her three pieces of chalk and tells her they are “Three wishes”.
This opening is juxtaposed with Shine, the leader of a local gang of adolescent boys. Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez) steals a cellphone from a local gang member. Ostensibly he takes the phone to sell it, although ulterior motives are hinted at. Both Ramon Lopez and Lara carry a weight on their faces. They’re both children and frequently have moments throughout the film where they act their age. There’s also quiet moments when they’re alone where it’s made clear these children carry heavy burdens with them that feel like they’re becoming too much to bear. It’s a credit to both of these performers and their director that the performances are as strong as they are.
Eventually our two leads are brought together as the violence has shut down Estrella’s school. She walks around her apartment and waits for a mother who has gone missing. By the time Shine has arrived at her home to pillage what items of value are left, Estrella’s situation has become desperate. Estrella begs Shine and his gang, which consist of three boys who are younger and more adorable than the last, to let her stay with them. They begrudgingly agree to take her in until the cell phone’s owner comes looking for Shine and his growing gang.
Issa Lopez and her cinematographer, Juan Jose Saravia, do a fantastic job of capturing this world. The images in this do a great job of capturing both a docudrama realism that you would expect in a movie where the cartel features heavily. There also moments when the children are exploring or playing or just being kids that feels like it’s straight out of ‘The Little Rascals’ or ‘Peter Pan’. This probably speaks more to me needing to see more world cinema, but I really appreciated how “Not Hollywood” so many of the choices made were. I can’t go into any real detail about these choices without spoiling the movie, but I will say this movie has real ramifications that will break your heart.
The tiger motif is also something beautifully weaved in and out of this story. The animal present in multiple fairy tales and stories the children tell each other throughout the film. What’s most interesting is how Tiger’s become a kind of Rorschach test for everyone. Tigers are always seen as being symbols of strength and overcoming fear. But one particular story reveals so much about our two leads. Shine views the story of a Tiger escaping the cage of his captures as a triumphant ending. He’s now free to rule over his new domain in the streets. Estrella sees the story as more tragic as this tiger has already been taken from its family and everything it loves and knows, so its newfound escape is little compensation. The movie ends with a variation on this parable and definitely comes down on one side of the argument. My only small knock on the finale is that it takes the tiger motif to the extreme and I think removing any hint of subtlety detracts from the film.
This was the one film I knew I couldn’t miss at this year’s Panic Film Fest, and it did not disappoint. I was moved to tears multiple times, horrified by actions that felt all too real, and delighted to see to see and exciting new voice in horror and film. It was one of Guillermo Del Toro’s Top 10 films of 2017 and deservedly so. Seek this movie out and support it. It’s far too rare to see a film with that both inspires you and terrifies you, ‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’ does both wonderfully.