Film Review: TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID (BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL)
The Boston Underground Film Festival has just wrapped on its 2018 season, and for the past 20 years or so, it’s been bringing some of the most underrated and obscure films to the public eye. Each year, the programming continues to get stronger and 2018 is no different. This year, I had the pleasure of reviewing the superb Mexican film TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID (which actually took home the prize for Audience Award-Best Feature). It’s a difficult film to classify, but TIGERS will reward any viewer tough enough to handle the harsh subject matter.
TIGERS takes a page from some recent films highlighting the senseless violence of Mexico’s ruthless drug war, but this time through the eyes of the children left to deal with the aftermath. The film opens with a number of statistics involving murders, kidnappings, and a number of other crimes related to the drug war. It then goes on to inform the viewer that there are no statistics regarding the children that are left orphaned or homeless in the wake of these crimes. It’s admittedly a fact I hadn’t really considered much until viewing the film, but it’s something I won’t soon forget. It should be noted that TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID is not really a horror film…like almost not at all. Aside from a few fantasy elements, most of the horrors on display here are very real and very human. Unless you’re completely heartless, prepare to get hit in the feels.
As the film begins, we’re introduced to ten-year-old Estrella (Paola Lara) working on an assignment in class. The assignment is about a fairy tale involving a prince who doesn’t know he’s a prince, and a tiger that is unintentionally released into the city. The tiger is a fierce and untamable creature that strikes fear into his enemies, while also remaining fearless in the face of great danger. It will become a metaphor that Estrella and her friends will eventually try to imitate, and a story they constantly tell amongst themselves. As the children are working on their stories, gunfire breaks out literally ripping through the classroom. The children are huddled on the floor, and the teacher hands Estrella three pieces of chalk telling her that they symbolize three wishes. This is clearly a ploy for the teacher to distract the students, but Estrella takes these “wishes” quite literally. This is the start of the fantasy elements that brilliantly attempt to whisk us away from the real carnage these kids see everyday.
Estrella returns home to find that her mother is not there. Estrella seems very troubled by this, almost knowing that something is wrong. As she waits, and waits, for her mother’s return, she witnesses a group of street kids led by Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez) as they do what they need to do to survive. That means stealing food, phones, or anything else they can get their hands on to ensure their survival. These kids live a harsh existence, as they are seen as a nuisance to the local drug gangs who ruthlessly hunt them down and kill with impunity. In fact, the first time we meet Shine, he is stealing a cell phone and a flashy gold plated gun from a drunken Sicario. Shine puts the gun to the man’s head, but can’t quite pull the trigger. Keep in mind that most of these kids are ten or less, and thrust into this world that they barely understand and frankly shouldn’t have to.
As more time goes by, Estralla’s mother still doesn’t return. She then uses her first wish to bring her mother back. A line of blood appears on the floor and begins to follow Estrella wherever she goes. This is her mother guiding her, but in Estrella’s own mind, as she routinely sees and hears ghosts of those caught up in the violence. They speak to her, and typically tell her what to do, although some of these voices have motives of revenge that they hope she’ll assist them with. Realizing that she’s now on her own, she joins up with Shine’s gang and hopes to learn the ways of living on the street.
There are realities that these kids are all too knowledgeable about, even if they don’t fully understand them. They know that the people that vanish don’t return, and allude to the fact that most of these people are victims of human trafficking. Shine is very reluctant to let Estrella into the group because he sees girls in the group as bad luck. He even reminds the other boys of what happens to the women the drug lords capture, although I’m not so sure he realizes exactly what that means. He just sees Estrella as an added target on their backs. However, Estrella more than proves her worth and shows that she’s every bit as tough, if not tougher, than any one of them. Her way of coping with these things, forces her adolescent mind to go to places that may or may not be real. It forces her to imagine that other events are taking place for her own sanity.
TIGERS plays with the concept of a child’s understanding of the horrors of their surroundings. It will undoubtedly call to mind films like PAN’S LABYRINTH, CITY OF GOD and the difficult to watch HELI, only way more subdued versions of each. TIGERS is strikingly original, and only goes to these familiar places for reference. The film takes on a lighthearted tone within the group, only to violently snatch that comfort away as soon as the audience lets its guard down. In that sense there are moments that seem like THE GOONIES, if the Goonies were being chased by bloodthirsty semi-satanic drug lords rather than the Fratelli family.
Although there is a playful nature to the film, it is always overshadowed by the backdrop of what is actually going on. Sometimes the kids are aware of it, and other times their youthful naivety shields them from the truth. There are some very real, tender moments that will give the viewer chills. Sometimes these tender moments are just manifestations of what the children wanted to happen, or a lack of understanding. For example, Shine has one cell phone in his collection that he refuses to part with. When his reasons for keeping this particular item are revealed, it is nothing short of tragic. But does he himself understand its significance? Should he be forced to deal with that reality?
TIGERS is a powerful film, and one with a clear voice against injustice and the innocent victims left to sort through the wreckage. Director Issa Lopez uses some very skillful cinematic techniques to tackle a complicated subject. It’s refreshing to see another strong female voice in horror, making an effort to affect social awareness. It’s never meant to lecture the audience, but her film finds a way to bring the horrors of this drug violence to the forefront. Whether these horrors are real or imagined, they still take a toll on the youth caught in the middle… and the viewer who is seeing what it can do to impressionable minds. Sometimes the only way to deal with these problems is to retreat into a fantasy world of your own creation, but sometimes those fantasies are equally dangerous.
“TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID will reward any viewer tough enough to handle the harsh subject matter”
4 out of 5 Tombstones…