Originally rejected from high profile festivals like Cannes, Toronto, SXSW, Issa López’s Tigers are not Afraid found its audience at genre film festivals and has been touring the circuit for the last year, one such was Glasgow Frightfest in March. The film was so well received that it was screened again at the Frightfest main event, a rarity at the festival.
A dark fable for modern times, Tigers are Not Afraid is told from the perspective of the young Estrella (Paola Lara) who finds herself one of Mexico’s abandoned children when a cartel, known as Los Huascas, take her mother away. She soon finds a group of fellow orphaned children led by the initially contemptuous Shine (Juan Ramón López) and together they try and survive the tumultuous landscape while haunted by the loss of their loved ones. Blending the staples of fairy-tale narratives and the horrors on the frontline of the Mexican drug war, Tigers is a gorgeous piece of magic realism – animated bracelets and toy tigers act as guides, the dead call for revenge and three chalk wishes are key to the structure of the narrative.
The story is brought to life by the young group who find themselves the lone adversaries to the Huascas gang. Together they have an enduring chemistry and the brief scenes of them simply being children are utterly heart-breaking when contrasted with the violent narrative. Each of the young ensemble are vibrant and affecting but it’s Juan Ramón López’s Shine that captivates the audience. López’s surprisingly mature and measured performance masterfully mixes callousness and innocence; underneath his world-weary exterior we see glimpses of a traumatized and frightened child.
Director and writer, Issa López has a declared deep love for genre cinema and it’s clear that there are several films that influenced this work. After an illustrious career in screenwriting, this is only her third film as a director and her first horror. Having previously worked in comedy it seems López has finally created art that speaks to her. There has been much said about the similarities of comedy and horror, with both genres needing to hit a beat and I’m sure that López’s background in comedy has helped hone her horror skills, but more than that it’s her background that has made her able to creative such an effective film.
As Mexican herself, the drug war is a currently ever-growing issue and while it is prominent in the media both locally and internationally. In a post film Q&A López stated she was frustrated the stories of the victims, notably children, are rarely represented. It’s truly refreshing to see a narrative that looks at cartel violence and doesn’t romanticise it. In Tigers you feel the cost, and it’s a deeply important way to tell this narrative. Bringing this issue into the foreground, López also created a deeply personal story. Having lost her mother at a young age, it feels as though Estrella’s emotive arc is an echo of the directors. When you never have the chance to say goodbye you often drag with you the ghosts of those who disappeared, but, as the film’s title emphasises, it’s about learning to not be afraid. It’s a beautifully universal story that transcends language borders, which is surely a key reason for its success on the festival circuit.
With its young cast and dark material many have pointed out the similarities between Tigers and Guillermo Del Toro’s, particularly ‘Pan’s Labyrinth.’ While this is something that should be explored it would be reductive to just see her in the light of Del Toro as there is something so savage and immediate about López’s work. The horrors are not things of gory beauty but are bitingly real, with many haunting images in the final act sure to linger. Del Toro himself tweeted about his love for the film and has paired up with López for what is sure to be a brilliant horror film. It’s amazing to see a film-maker of his stature still try and help deserving film-makers reach a larger audience.
Sadly, it seems Tigers will be cursed to never move beyond the confines of the film festival. Even though the film has won over twenty-five awards in the past year, including ‘Best Horror Picture Director’ at Fantasticfest, making López the first woman and Mexican to ever receive the honour, it outrageously still hasn’t found distribution outside Mexico. So, while we should look forward to López’s future work, let us not forget Tigers Are Not Afraid: a startling horror debut that’s a striking yet troubling reminder of how horrifying our reality can be.
by Tara Jennett