Tigers Are Not Afraid (Issa Lopez, 2017)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Tigers Are Not Afraid.

Issa López’s festival-favourite is a darkly magical tale set in the real world tragedy of Mexico’s violent drug war, where thousands of murdered and missing people result in countless orphaned children forced onto the streets to fend for themselves. When her mother disappears, a young girl named Estrella uses one of three wishes granted to her to ask for her mother back and finds herself haunted by a vengeful ghost. Estrella takes up with a quartet of street kids led by Shine but the boys have their own problems, pursued by a vicious gang intent on reclaiming a lost iPhone. Blending artfully immediate handheld cinematography and convincing fantastical digital effects, López creates a realist fairy tale that stands as a prescient statement on Mexico’s deadly drug cartels and a hauntingly magical fairy tale.

Disc Features:

  • 2K digital transfer, approved by director Issa López, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New interview with López, acting coach Fátima Toledo, and filmmaker Guillermo del Toro
  • Tan Callando, López’s 1994 student film made at Mexico’s National University, with introduction by the director
  • Trailer
  • New English subtitle translation
  • PLUS: An essay by novelist Stephen King

From the outside looking in, Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017) hardly looks like an Issa López film. As an award-winning writer of literature, a highly successful television writer and screenwriter (including work on Mexican Sesame Street and various telenovelas), and the director of two hit romantic comedies, one would hardly expect the dark fantasy and terrifying realism of López’s third feature, however Tigers is a passion project very much in the filmmaker’s wheelhouse as López readily admits to being a confirmed nerd with deep roots in sci-fi, horror, and comic book cultures. It’s hardly a surprise then that López and Tigers have drawn comparisons to Mexico’s king of horror-fantasy, Guillermo del Toro, or that del Toro has since signed on to produce López’s next feature film. What is surprising is that Tigers Are Not Afraid still seems to be without a distributor. Could del Toro and the Criterion Collection offer some remedy, at least for the film’s hard media release? MMC! hopes so and imagines here what that edition might look like.

Tigers Are Not Afraid attends to the true life tragedy of Mexico’s drug war and the many children orphaned by the murders and disappearances of their parents, a plague López advises now extends to all parts of the country but gets little attention. Estrella (Paola Lara) is a girl who lives alongside this street-level brutality, witnessing crime scenes on her walks to and from school and cowering on the floor with her classmates as gunfire blasts outside. Laying flat on the classroom floor terrified, her teacher hands her three pieces of chalk, telling her they are wishes, and when Estrella returns to her empty home, missing her vanished mother, she uses one of her wishes to ask for her mom back. Her mother returns as a horrifying spectral figure who demands Estrella produce her killers, a wish granted but twisted à la W. W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw.” Estrella flees her home and is grudgingly accepted into a group of homeless boys led by Shine (Juan Ramón López). Shine has his own grudge against the local cartel of drug dealers and human traffickers, “The Huascas,” and has stolen an iPhone and a pistol from Caco (Ianis Guerrero), a member of the Huascas now targeting the boys. Shine and Estrella, along with the group’s other kids, Pop (Rodrigo Cortes), Tucsi (Hanssel Casillas), and Morro (Nery Arredondo, always with his stuffed tiger in tow), struggle to survive the merciless pursuit of the Huascas and of the supernatural forces that surround Estrella.

One of the great strengths to López’s film is the framework she establishes to depict this dire world from a child’s perspective. Tigers is careful to keep its camera perspective at a child’s height (the “sixth member of the gang”), and the film goes to great lengths to ensure that childish exuberance is never stamped out fully by the orphans’ harsh conditions. López gives time between situations of mortal danger to reveal the joy still able to be found in discovering a pond full of fish or a bag of soccer balls. Most significantly, López establishes fairy tales as a frame to consider the children’s terrible adventures, having both Shine and Estrella introduce themselves through stories of princes, castles, and tigers. From there, graffiti comes alive on alley walls, objects reveal animistic power, and trails of blood stalk characters across streets and walls, recalling not just del Toro’s work on The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) but also Nabil Ayouch’s story of orphans and magical realism on the streets of Casablanca, Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets (2000). López acknowledges debts to del Toro, Stephen King’s The Body and It, J-horror, Lake Mungo (Joel Anderson, 2008), Heavy Metal magazine, The Goonies (Richard Donner, 1985), and Buñuel’s Los Olvidados (1950), but the film is most significantly bound in the mythology of Peter Pan, with its own Peter (Shine), Wendy (Estrella), Lost Boys (Pop, Tusci, and Morro), Hook (Caco and his boss Chino), and the crocodile (Estrella’s mother). Part of the fascination of Tigers Are Not Afraid is that it preserves Pan‘s central conflicts between wanting to extend our youthful innocence and the inevitability of adult responsibilities. López also takes Pan‘s iconic line, “All children, except one, grow up,” and darkly inverts it, bringing into sharp focus the unfortunate situation of many Mexican children who never get the opportunity to grow up.

Of course, Tigers Are Not Afraid is nothing without the powerful performances of its child actors. Unhappy with the anachronistically twee performances given by Mexico’s professional child performers, López casted her five street kids after seeing 600 auditions and relied on acting guru Fátima Toledo to work the same magic she did on Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s City of God (2002), providing guidance in choosing between the final twenty. Toledo educated López that children must live the desired emotion in order to provide a convincing performance and that it was up to López to lead the way for them in an effective but responsible manner. López did so by shooting the film in sequence and attempting to keep the children unaware of what was to come, while also drawing on the loss of her own mother when she was eight after an unexpected cancer diagnosis and an all-too-brief three-week battle with the disease took her mom from her. Only Juan Ramón López was an actual orphan and all the kids had caregivers to see them through the shoot. The effect is stunning as Tigers’ gang of five kids express a kind of tragic solemnity that never descends into complete cynicism, never entirely shakes off a child’s belief that fairness, right, and love can ensure a fairy tale’s happy ending. And it is there that Tigers Are Not Afraid becomes shatteringly beautiful and tragic.

Issa López struggled for more than a year to get Tigers into “status” film festivals like Berlin and the Un Certain Regard program at Cannes and never found success. Encouraged to submit the film to the 2017 Fantastic Fest, López did so and the film discovered its audience. López won the best horror director prize and the film has been a juggernaut since, winning various Best Picture, Best Director, and Audience Prizes at Screamfest, Dedfest, Mórbido, Ithaca Fantastik, the Paris International Fantastic Film Festival, NOXFILMFEST, Panic Fest, Boston Underground, the Chattanooga Fantastic Film Festival, the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival, and the Imagine Fantastic Film Festival (and with no end in sight). So how does this film still have no distribution when audience and festival juries alike embrace the film so strongly?

MMC! would love to see the Criterion Collection solve at least some of the distribution problems facing Tigers Are Not Afraid by releasing a deserving hard media edition of the film. Granted, horror films do not find easy admission into the Criterion Collection and the thematic and stylistic similarities to Guillermo del Toro’s films could be a barrier to a wacky “C,” but Tigers‘ contemporary setting and topical subject matter represents significantly distinguishing features from del Toro’s historical fantasies and offers a socio-political prescience for this part of the world that is not represented in the Collection currently. More importantly, it’s difficult to identify a film that has more solidly proven itself than Tigers Are Not Afraid, not merely as a horror film but as something also politically forward and sincerely moving. We’d be happy to see the film’s theatrical poster get used for a CC cover-treatment. It’s all there – the youthful perspective, the defiant graffiti, the fearsome special effects, the hardscrabble environment. Tigers Are Not Afraid is undoubtedly an important, must-see film and it deserves to more widely appreciated. If you have the chance to catch this tiger by the tale, don’t let it pass you by.

Credits: Shout out once again to the Chattanooga Film Festival! Tigers collected the Festival’s Best Feature prize and wrung out tears from the CFF’s audience by the bucketful. This imagined Criterion Collection edition is fairly self-explanatory and includes an essay on the film by Stephen King given his supportive tweet for the film: “this is one terrific film, both tough and touching. Two minutes in, I was under its spell.”

This post owes its biggest debts to Issa López’s interviews at Battle Royale with Cheese, the BIFFF, the Without Your Head podcastand the Switchblade Sisters podcast.

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