Issa Lopez is telling a story that no one else is telling. The drug wars in Mexico in the last few decades are no secret but cinematic narratives tend to romanticize the facts and focus on the bad guys. Tigers Are Not Afraid does things quite differently as Lopez builds a fantastical yet touching story of resilient children that is inspiring and beautiful in tone and aesthetics.
Tiger’s Are Not Afraid opens up with a teacher discussing the different elements of the fairytale genre with a classroom full of students. The teacher’s talk of princes and tigers is soon interrupted by gunshots. Chaos erupts as the children dart below their desks to hide. While laying on the floor the teacher calls Estrella (Paola Lara) by name and gives her three pieces of chalk explaining they are wishes. Not only is this opening moment an introduction of the movie’s main character but also a clue this film itself is a fairytale that has a different and darker type of happy ending.
The unnamed city where Estrella lives is plagued by corruption and human trafficking. Most of the pain is the direct effect of gang members running around murdering women and ultimately leaving their children to fend for themselves. After the attack that happened by the school, Estrella finds that classes have been canceled. She returns home to find her mother missing which can only mean one thing. She remembers the wishes her teacher gave her the day before and quickly wishes for her mother to be back but it is not the mother she once knew, but the supernatural remnant of her soul.
Finally, Estrella leaves the empty apartment to join a small group of boys that live on their own closeby. They are all wary about letting a girl join their gang, especially the leader, Shine (Juan Ramón López). His dirty mouth and a grown-up way of thinking are evident but his small stature is a reminder that he is still a child. Eventually, Estrella convinces Shine and the other boys she is a good addition to the team. Little do they know that they are also inviting the lingering soul of her mother which follows Estrella into their newly made surrogate family.
From the very first moment in the classroom until the surreal resolution at the end, Tigers Are Not Afraid is brimming with Tension. The shaky camera, which captures the ups and downs of the children’s forced adventure, is a gritty component, adding texture, and believability. Lopez’s focus is on capturing the endurance of these young survivors. This motivation combined with unproblematic writing gives no room for the backstory of the bad guys.
This directorial choice to focus only on the group of kids is a bold move. This approach should be recognized and used as an example of how not to romanticize lifestyles of organized crime which comes at the high cost of many lives. There are moments where it’s forgettable that these children are of elementary school age, but shared collective trauma that has allowed them to bond has also forced them to mature.
Most of the film is covered in a gray color scheme that can be associated with the overall mood of the setting. In order for the film’s tone not to get too heavy, there is a reminder that this is in the point of view of children who, despite their traumatic experiences that have forced them to mature much faster, are still children. The moments of joy that can be seen are in the rare smiles caused by dancing in the rain, a box full of soccer balls, and fish that live in a puddle. After all the darkness that has burdened their lives, these children still appreciate the good in the world.
Lopez is an activist as much as an artist. During a Wednesday night Q&A at IFC Center in New York, she stated that we (filmmakers) have a responsibility to tell the stories that we need to tell: to talk about issues no one else is willing to talk about. Tigers Are Not Afraid is evidence of this mission.
Tigers Are Not Afraid will touch the lives of many as the shared understanding of missing women and family members is not only seen in drug-torn Mexico but across the globe. This includes Native American communities dealing with the silent Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s crisis and what is currently happening here in the United States with the separation of families in order for their children to be put in cages. Lopez hopes this film can be a comfort to those who have been hurt by similar events and a reminder that death is not always an ending but a beautiful beginning.