The film Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017) is a story about a childhood undercut by violence and the ghosts that remain to haunt the living. The alternate title of this film is Vuelven meaning They Come Back or Return. For multiple decades, there have been thousands of people killed across Mexico due to the ongoing Drug War and warring cartel factions, leaving behind hundreds of ‘ghost towns’. Issa López addresses these very phenomena in an interview with Paula Mejía,
“The truth is, the past in Colombia, Venezuela, and a lot of Latin American countries is a very similar experience — you grow up in a culture that’s so ingrained in violence. And you know, Mexico has always been perceived universally — well, now that’s changing thanks to the drug war, and it’s horrible — as a fun-loving kind of place. And it is. But the truth is that even before the Spanish conquered Mexico, its history is made of war. Very very bloody, very very violent war, very very religious, very very magical. And completely obsessed with the concept of death. Or the dead being with us, or in constant communication with the dead.” (Film Comment, 2018)
The film states that the exact number of children affected by this violence is unknown. No one is immune to the deaths sanctioned by politicians, gang members, or the police in fiction or reality within this fantasy-horror narrative. The children are made homeless, parentless, and guardian-less by the overabundance of violence and human trafficking in their communities. They are dually victims and survivors who experience daytime violence at school, on the streets, or in the dead of night. The film is not shy in showing the layers and variances of post-traumatic stress, especially in how that may manifest in children. Unlike adults, they don’t have a lifetime of experiences to sift through and mentally process loss, grief, and anger. Moreover, the other living adults in their vicinity are not refuges of physical or emotional safety.
This is the first horror film written and directed by Director Issa López and what a debut it is. She intertwines the fantasy and the supernatural fluidly throughout the film, in a beautiful homage that hearkens back to the war-torn journey of Ophelia in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Similarly to that film, the main character in Tigers Are Not Afraid named Estrella (Paola Lara) is given three pieces of chalk that are imbued with magic and wishes. Anything her heart desires is granted but with each whispered plea there is a price. After she witnesses the aftermath of violence in her neighborhood, a trail of blood follows her home. The blood rends a seam between a portrait of her mother — her protector — and lifeline; the blood continues towards the path of a dress, center mass. The blood flows down the dress and drips towards the floor. The blood represents an omen and a trail of breadcrumbs that will assist young Estrella on her path towards justice. There are no magic fauns to guide Estrella on her path in this film but the grisly and ghoulish specter of her deceased mother (Viviana Amaya) does while haphazardly wrapped in a bloody plastic shroud. Estrella did wish her mother would come back.
When discussing death and the loss of her mother Issa López explored the import of death rituals and the necessity of affirmation of an individual’s passing. With the progress of time, we have lost the physical and psychological processes of tribal rituals wherein we mourn, sing, dance, shout, wail, or dress in the very shrouded black or white colors of the deceased. With the ongoing pandemic of COVID-19, beginning in 2020, we are being forcibly removed from death in a way that we weren’t before and now we are reckoning with the loss of what we once took for granted. Note, this section of quotation was taken long before the circumstances we’re experiencing now but they are words we should heed.
“We’ve created a world where we are so away from death. We never see it happening. And once it happens, we do a lot of gymnastics to not face it, or face the actual dead body the way a dead body is supposed to look. Simply not go through the rituals that, for thousands of years we’ve been doing, since I think we were first aware that we die, and the people we love die. So that affected me deeply, the fact that I never had the chance to say goodbye. I never had a chance to be at the funeral — and I understand the decision, it’s hard to decide to have an eight-year-old look at a box where her dead mother is and then see that box buried. It’s a tremendously powerful moment. But in a way, you need to see that to understand that this person is really dead. And that she’s not somewhere, and that maybe you will run into her again.”
There are many markers of tragic beauty in this film such as black death ribbons on doorways, graffiti of tigers and children, and camera work that is arresting as it is haunting. Even when the ghosts or violent perpetrators aren’t on screen, the audience knows they could appear at any time leaving many scenes dripping with tension and anxiety. The gang members and the tiger intertwine reality and urban legend which leaves the communities affected by their presence constantly in fear. When discussing Mexican and Latin American history Issa López again references the power of magics, that were utilized to sustain life and cultural identity amidst turmoil, tragedy, and colonization.
“The type of war that ancient Mexicans went into was magical war, it was religious war. The prisoners were sacrificed in extremely violent ways. The Spanish get here, carrying on their shoulders the Inquisition and a very bloody version of Catholicism. We had centuries of domination with a lot of rebellions and after that a very bloody independence. And after that independence, this ongoing war going to revolution, and a revolution that never really ended. And that in turn became the drug war. It’s a history of constant conflict. And the only way to cope with a history of never-ending conflict is survival. And the way to survive — for anybody that has been in the middle of conflict for a long time, and this can even be personal, with families that live in a violent environment — is the beauty of the human spirit. Especially with children. It is incredible how they are able to find imagination and play in the midst of the most despairing conditions.”
The amazing thing about this entire story and how it has been visualized is through the children’s point-of-view, with their voices, their visual perspective, and their imagination of the fantastical. Oftentimes, the film feels like a nightmarish folktale with the human monsters constantly trying to devour the children through organ harvesting, human trafficking, with the scourge of toxic masculinity in tow. The male children are constantly battling the dictates of a world that deems their worth only through machismo; every moment of gentility and affection they show towards each other and Estrella is hard-wrung in a world that wants to wring it out of them.
In the film, we are introduced to El Shine (Juan Ramón López), leader of the children’s crew who took a gang member’s phone that had photos and videos connecting a string of criminal acts to other powerful people across the city. Estrella wishes that she didn’t have to kill the gang member that is terrorizing her and her friends, but she wants to prove her toughness to the other children. The gang member to her shock is already dead because she wished she didn’t have to kill him, but her presence at the scene is incriminating and not what it appears. So she, and the children that have adopted her into their crew must find a new place to live now; the monsters are coming for blood. All the while Estrella’s mother has been appearing to her ghastlier than ever each time, beseeching, ‘Bring us to where the dead wait for him.’ They will exact vengeance upon the leader of all the violence. *Take note, there’s no reason to fear the dead, unless you’ve maligned them or their loved ones in life.*
The film shows that even in a world that is brimming with the apocalyptic or horrific, children somehow find ways to play and be playful. When the group of children in the film find an abandoned luxurious mansion to sleep in, one of their first thoughts is a football game. The universality of blight that makes people flee is also apparent when they find a shattered aquarium with koi fish swimming freely on the first level of the house. Their brief respite inside the house is short-lived, the gang-leader El Chino (Tenoch Huerta) wants his phone that holds the information of the crimes he’s committed returned. The phone for their lives he promises and surprisingly he keeps his word.
The young Shine has switched the phones however because he wants to keep the only media he has of his and Estrella’s mothers while they were still alive. His eyes are pleading and so despondent for Estrella to understand and the weight of all that he’s experienced in his few years is roiling off of him in waves. She cups his cheek, marks it with her chalk, and wishes his scar(s) would disappear. And they do…violently. El Chino’s bullet has eviscerated his face. Estrella is all out of wishes. The power of the wish and the imagination, especially in the mind of the child is one of the most powerful substances in literature and media writ large, thus the audience immediately recognizing the imagery or iconography of school-chalk and childhood conjuring.
“And then she makes a little mistake of wishing — and she believes she has been granted three wishes. I believe she has been granted three wishes, too. That’s one of the questions in the movie: is this a thing that she’s imagining, or is the magic real? And audiences have to decide, and whatever they come out with is the truth. She makes a wish that her mother comes back, and Mom does come back. But from the grave — she’s dead. And she starts running away from the ghost because she doesn’t want to face it…”
Indeed, she does run from the ghoulish and bloody visage of her mother because it’s too raw and real in its manifestation. As the film progresses, Estrella knows what she must do, find her Mother and end this cycle of running and hiding. The violence and the fear must stop. When she begins searching for that end, what she finds is almost indescribably macabre. The discovery of an abandoned room filled almost to the brim with plastic-wrapped bodies is one of the most horrifying images I’ve ever seen. Director Issa López pulls no punches when it comes to the realistic violence and I left many moments unwritten for a fresh and individualized experience. When crafting misery and trauma Issa López strikes a balanced and nuanced tone because tragedy oftentimes affects children very early in their lives. The processing of that trauma casts shadows and shades of darkness upon previously happy situations or locales. As the danger and threat escalates for the children throughout the film, the color palette becomes almost devoid of warm coloring and regularly becomes desaturated or monochromatic.
Horror long ago permeated the bubble of innocence that adults constantly tried to shield their young minds and hearts from. When this occurs, a mind that may have been shaped by bedtime stories of monsters now knows that there are real human dangers that lurk on the periphery of waking beyond dreams. These experiences engender a certain maturity that others may not be able to fathom due to arms-length experiences with death and violence. Person’s like Issa López turn sorrow into fuel for writing stories that navigate those feelings and how death can even represent a beginning or a new chapter of life.
“And then you start falling in love with ghost stories, because they point to the fact that death is not an end. And you start reading science fiction, because maybe the world is wider. Maybe there’s more in the future. And you start reading fantasy, because what about magic? Maybe if you wish really really hard, you know? So you start falling in love with the genre. And that’s what happened to me.”
Estrella (and the ghosts prevail), with the actual big cat of lore itself appearing, not a spray-painted rendering on an alley wall. It turns to her in acknowledgment of her victory and courage. As it meanders away, Estrella follows its path into a surreal picturesque dreamscape of flowers and sunshine, leaving behind the horrors of this mortal plane. The ending and the entire story for that matter are open to interpretation. Were the things she experienced real or a type of out-of-body enchantment to process the trauma she was experiencing? Did she survive in the end or is she unwittingly a ghost too? The Director believes all theories are valid but what was most important for the characters in this particular story was the journey, not a happily ever after per se. ‘They went through all of the bad space and came out on the other side. They are royals of this kingdom of broken things’, Shine says. And Estrella concludes, ‘because we have to remember we are royals too.’ The ending is an amalgamation of the grim and the beautiful where the voices of the child characters act as the coda or refrain to the fairytale illustrated throughout the film. They’ve tapped into their wildest imaginations and became the purest manifestations of magic they know — tigers that are not afraid.