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Tigers Are Not Afraid
Ghosts Are Real
The opening subtitles of Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017) inform the viewer: “Since the beginning of the drug war in 2006, 160,000 have been killed and 53,000 have disappeared in Mexico. Entire areas of some cities are turning into ghost towns. There are no numbers for the children the dead and the missing have left behind.”
It’s a grim opening that swiftly transitions to a somewhat dingy classroom where a teacher asks students to construct fairy tales out of the classic elements of whimsical storytelling. “Foxes! Witches! Ghosts! Tigers!” This sets the stage for a quickly-paced and deliberate journey through the slums of a Mexican city. It’s tragic, moving, terrifying, and ultimately hopeful. The film's prologue is shockingly effective for reasons I don’t want to spoil. Any feelings of security we have as viewers are upended as we are just beginning to orient ourselves within the universe the film is laying out.
Estrella (Paola Lara) goes home early from school after telling the story of a prince to her teacher. On her walk home, she sees a body on the ground, covered by a coat with blood running out. As she walks home, the blood begins to act strangely, and a thin trail follows her. Elsewhere, El Shine (Juan Ramón López), an orphan, is grappling with life on the city's streets. He runs with other young boys who are orphaned. They steal from drunks at bars. They eat what they can in the ruins of old apartments. Every action taken by the children is in service of one goal: survival. In zooming into a typical day and showing us how the children arrive at the most logical efforts given their situation, the movie's brilliance seeps in. For example, it’s difficult to imagine what would drive a child to consider murder, but after spending a few days with El Shine’s group of orphans, we start to get it. At the same time, the film uses horror and fantasy to preserve some of their innocence without defanging the razor-sharp commentary made by their reality.
Issa López, directing her third feature-length film and first since 2008, draws depth and soul from the ensemble of kids who carry the film. You aren’t likely to find better performances from young actors than here-in. It’s exciting and worth noting that López is writing and directing season 4 of True Detective, which will star Jodie Foster and have Barry Jenkins as executive producer. We also get a brilliantly cold turn from Tenoch Huerta, who is poised for a Hollywood breakout with his forthcoming role as Namor in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022).
Fans of Guillermo del Toro will be in comfortable territory with Tigers Are Not Afraid. Its most direct influence, The Devil’s Backbone (2001), also features children trying to survive crushing circumstances. (Read Movie Night’s recommendation here!) Like in del Toro’s work, horror tropes are used with great restraint in support of a story that isn’t interested in scares for scare’s sake. Fantasy stories such as this one, done well, can tell us more about ourselves than the most accurate realism. It allows the narrative to be turned slightly on its side, like a Rubik's cube being examined from a different angle in the hope that a solution might become apparent. A supernatural element is added to a situation that thousands of children cope with every day so that we might not only be lured in by the promise of entertainment but better understand a real struggle.
Tigers Are Not Afraid reminds us that horror is in the eye of the beholder. Horror is not something that naturally exists; humans create it. When horrors are part of our history, it takes effort and courage to look at them. We look away at our peril.
Tigers Are Not Afraid
Written and Directed by Issa López
Stray Thoughts from the Editor
One week remains in October! I recovered from watching last week's recommendations just in time to write a recommendation for this week. Huge thanks again to Dae for always bringing a fresh voice to Movie Night and a sense of humor!
I’m excited about next week’s recommendation; the last week of October will bring a film that I saw in theatres a few years ago and was the first movie I ever watched that made me think: “I have to write about this.”
See you next week!
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