The hardest scene to watch in Issa Lopez’s Tigers Are Not Afraid are the opening minutes. Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez) a young boy on the streets of the city, alone, dark, homeless. He takes a gun from a drug cartel guy.
By day, a teacher in the classroom talking about fairytales, right before gunshots are fired and the children duck for cover, as a gunman continues on his rampage. Estrella (Paola Lara) who is given chalk. They’re three wishes her teacher tells her, trying to remain calm, trying to keep the children calm.
Estrella returns to find her mother has gone missing. The Huascas have taken her. They are the cartel that run the streets, the terror, the monsters. Orphaned and alone, Estrella joins the many children on the street. There’s no one watching her. She has no choice but to figure out how to survive. She meets Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez), a young boy who has stolen an iPhone and gun from a drug lord and he wants them back.
Lopez cuts between the two worlds of Shine and Estrella until they meet. The opening minutes are so horrifying because you realize it’s a truth. A harsh truth that is going on in the world, right down the border. IT’s horrifying because you’re forced to see what’s happening to the children, this is their world. A world where drug cartels take children and parents, leaving other children alone, abandoned and unseen. Just like Shine is, he’s unseen as he takes the gun and iPhone.
It’s a dark world, a world anchored in the imagination of the children. As young children, we’re introduced to fairy tales whether they are Disney, The Grimm Brothers or cultural fairytales, and as children, they’re designed to help us understand the world and make sense of it.
Here Shine is the hero. He leads the kids. He tells them about tigers and being a warrior. A tiger fears nothing and hunts its destroyers. Estrella too knows about the tigers. She is orphaned, her mother seems to haunt her, following her. Estrella sees ghosts. Haunted by them, telling her they want revenge on the cartel.
Lopez’s camera is hand-held, perfectly shaky as she captures the streets these children survive on. She straddles between the worlds of fantasy, eerie supernatural and the real world. While her gritty camera work and score excel, the film belongs to these children. Their performances standout. Juan Ramon Lopez shines in his role. The fear, the humanity, the vulnerability he displays strikes at the heart. Paola Lara is captivating. This film is shot from the point of view of the children. We’re never quite sure that the ghosts Estrella see, are real or are they a figment of her imagination, the ghosts seeking revenge, are they just her inner thoughts?
Where Tigers Are Not Afraid really pounces at you is the voice it gives. These children are a grim reality and reminder of the real war happening. The drug war, the cartels, the druglords shooting children, taking parents, leaving children alone, orphaned and left to fend for themselves. It’s a stark reality that Issa Lopez reminds of all that exists today. It reminds us of a world the families are fleeing from. Not only is this a remarkable film, it’s a timely and important message.
Guillermo Del Toro and Stephen King have lauded the film, and rightfully so, this film, Tigers Are Not Afraid is truly a film that haunts and yet succeeds at capturing the beauty and innocence and hope of these children.
“We are warriors.”
Tigers Are Not Afraid is out now.