Estrella, age 11, is granted three magical wishes after a tragic event at her school — only to find out that her fate is about to take an even worse turn. It sounds like the beginning of a dark fairy tale, but the movie, Tigers Are Not Afraid, is far more than that.
It takes place during Mexico's violent, bloody drug war. Estrella's mother is taken by the cartels, and in trying to find her mom, she meets a boy named Shine, who wears a tiger mask. He lives on the street and leads a gang of fellow orphans, helping each other survive the constant violence around them while chasing the ghosts of their parents.
Tigers Are Not Afraid (titled Vuelven in Spanish) is now beginning a limited theatrical release in North America in advance of its arrival on the horror-specific streaming service Shudder. It's written and directed by Issa López, who says that "reality" inspired her to make the film.
"There's a universal fascination with the figure of the drug lord, and with the cartels, and a certain type of romance even, which is terrible, that has emerged from it," she says. "But nobody is talking about the children left to their own devices because their parents have been taken, their parents were displaced or sometimes killed. Nobody is addressing this as the proper war it is. And I felt that we needed that story; someone needed to do it."
Of course, the film also has plenty of fantastical elements.
"I love fairy tales, I love fantasy and I love horror," López says. "And I thought this was a great opportunity to go into all of that."
On losing her own mother at a young age
My mom died of natural causes, but it was very unexpected and sudden. And many, many times you don't realize that you're dragging a ghost behind you. And I was just about to go into production when one of my friends pointed out that it was my personal story, and it floored me. I hadn't seen it.
On developing the line of blood that follows Estrella around the movie
As I was writing the first scenes, I created this image of a girl that has to leave school because there was a shootout right outside. And she sees a dead body, which happens frequently in the war culture. And she watches it for a second and then turns around and walks away. And that's not something you can do with violence — you can't turn your back and walk away. It will come after you until you look at it and you understand what's going on. And as I'm writing that scene, and she turns around from the pool of blood, a line of blood starts following her. And it became sort of the leitmotif of the movie: How death will come with you, will walk with you, until you accept and embrace the situation you are in. ...
I think that it's the perfect view to understand a broken universe. But also: I'm Mexican. I'm deeply Latin American. And the entire thing about Latin America is magical thinking, and witchcraft, and ghosts, and leading with our death. So it was just a matter of sitting down to write at the very beginning, and not trying to pull the story in that direction, but simply getting out of the way for the story to tell itself.
On tackling social and political issues with magical realism
Yes. I think that if you're attempting to bring these things to the conversation of the social classes that make the decisions in Mexico — which is [the] middle class and upper class — they don't want to watch movies about children suffering because of political corruption. So what you do is: You make a movie of a genre that makes it easier. And the interesting phenomenon was that it worked around the world. And I think it's important to understand what are the true horrors that these children are facing, especially when two years after the movie opened at a festival for the first time, we find ourselves in a version of the United States where children that cross the border to survive this [drug] war are being put in cages. So it's particularly urgent. And if horror is going to be the way to deliver this message, fantastic. Let's go with it.
On how a movie specific to Mexico has landed internationally
Issa López: What is striking is: I set out to make a movie about a very peculiar, particular situation, which is what Mexico is going through right now. But I found that many of the themes that the movie touches upon, you can find them across the world. So for example, there is a gender violence happening in the movie, which is the origin of the story. In Canada, Native women are disappearing in big numbers; I think that I'm ashamed to say I didn't know. And then you play the movie in a city like Belfast, where they still have walls to divide one side from the other, and they understand bullets flying around town. It is not a good thing that the movie is understood deeply in so many places. It's actually worrisome.
Leila Fadel: There was one scene in the movie where the kids were playing make-believe on a stage. And I remember a very specific [experience] going to a place with Syrian refugees where they were acting out, in a very funny way, the war that was going on around them. And it just felt so familiar.
López: That's — you know, I didn't know that. But that's so moving because, again, through telling stories and fables, and playing and performing for each other, they try to make sense of the world. And yeah, it was a natural thing to happen. ... It's just inside children to stand up and create a character and portray it. And it doesn't matter if it's in [Arabic] or it's in Russian or in Korean, or — it doesn't matter what language.
On being a woman in a male-dominated horror-film industry
Something funny happened just as the movie was opening: The whole #MeToo movement exploded. And I've been front row, watching the changes that it's created. And I'm not saying that it has fixed anything, but I am saying that at least now we're observant of a phenomenon where the numbers simply don't make sense. The percentages don't make sense.
I've been in so many conversations about genre and gender. And it's really interesting because in Spanish, the word for both things is the same — is género. And here's the deal: I don't believe neither in genre nor in gender. I believe in the stories that need to be told. ... And I'm telling you, we need to start telling stories from a different point of view, if, for nothing else, for the sake of not getting bored, you know? We need to hear a new voice, a new take. And the fact that women and LGBT community ... are standing up and just taking the stage is allowing the world to hear different stories and different voices. And that is priceless.
Sophia Alvarez Boyd and Ed McNulty produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.