WIHM – When you Wish Upon a Chalk: Magical Realism and Horror in ‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’

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During his Nobel Prize speech in 1992, author Gabriel Garcia Marquez said “To oppression… we respond with life”. His works often depicted a reality tinted with a touch of magic, but not enough to break the story and drive the reader into the land of fantasy. This is magic realism. A genre established especially in Latin America, that has found a special home in the world of film. 

In Vuelven (Tigers Are Not Afraid), Issa Lopez dives into the story of Estrella (Paula Lara), a girl living in a town devastated by a drug war. When her school is under attack, her teacher gives her some pieces of chalk that soon become her apparent haven, and when her mother mysteriously disappears, she uses one to wish for her return. This is the introduction to magical realism the film shows the audience and, it is one of the best examples of how it’s done: a common object— in this case, a piece of chalk, that explores magic without explanation. 

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While this is not the first time someone uses the resource of ghosts in magic realism (Juan Rulfo did it in his novel Pedro Paramo), Lopez uses the genre as a way of exploring the violence and trauma war brings. Her ghosts —while at first used for the element of horror— soon find a purpose; they are a guide to Estrella. As the story moves on, they soon find the voice they were robbed of when they were murdered, a prime example is Morrito (Nery Arredondo), who starts speaking once he comes back from the dead. The ghosts are the direct manifestation of the violence and trauma Estrella goes through.

Another key element of the film is its use of blood. Before Estrella makes her first wish, a river of blood starts following her home, and when it lands on a dress, the audience realises that her mother is dead. The blood follows her through the story, from meeting the group of kids she soon joins, till the very end. The blood marks the path for Estrella to find the body of her mother, among others, and ultimately, bring Chino (Tenoch Huerta) to the room, where the dead find their ultimate revenge, and the shed blood comes back.

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Fire also makes multiple appearances during the film, from Shine’s (Juan Ramón López) story, including his scar and his mother’s death that drives him to the street and on a path of revenge, to a piano being burnt, and finally, his ghost burning the room where Chino is being killed by the corpses. Fire is destruction, is pain, but right at the end, is rebirth. The fire that destroys us will set us free.

At some point in the movie, Shine tells Estrella that “there are no wishes, nothing, not even tigers. We are the only thing we see”. But in the shadows, there’s a tiger, a warrior that accompanies them even when they can’t see it. Their tiger is protective, is an element of guidance, of courage, of freedom. It’s a little bedtime story Shine tells the other kids about a freed tiger hunting on the streets. It’s Morro’s toy guiding Estrella through the abandoned house where she’ll find her dead mother, it’s the painting that accompanies them through a broken town filled with death and loss, it’s the tiger Estrella sees when everything is over, when pain is too real, when you think you’ve lost everything. It’s freedom, and hopefully, it’s the beginning of healing.

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This film is not a fantasy that is broken when Estrella’s well-intentioned wishes come after her, that’s the reality of war. The horror is not the films guiding force, but it is as part of the narration as is the growth and pain these characters go through. Lopez is able to portray a broken world and the trauma that comes from war through little moments of magic and horror. Because sometimes reality is so hurtful that we need little instances of fantasy to make it better, to make it less hurtful. Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez said back in 1992, “To oppression… we respond with life”. And to pain, with art.

by Andrea de Lera

Andrea de Lera (she goes by her mother’s surname because it sounds better, sorry dad) is a graduate in English Studies and Communication from her hometown University of Oviedo (Spain) and spent a year at Leeds Uni. Someone told her once she was funny and she knew about movies and TV so she based her life around that. Her favorite movies include Singin’ In The RainSome Like It HotThe Rocky Horror Picture Show or When Harry Met Sally. Find her on Twitter and IG @andreadelera, on Letterboxd or her blog

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