Once upon a time, there was a Prince who wanted to be a tiger. Tigers never forget. They’re hunters. Their eyes can see in the dark. They have fangs, to break bones. Tigers are not afraid.
This may not be your idea of how to begin a fairy tale for young children, but it makes perfect sense once you understand that the author, Estrella (Paolo Lara), is an 11-year-old Mexican girl who lives in a town ruled by gang violence. While she’s a studious and well-mannered girl who tries to lead a normal life, she’s not superhuman, and two key events abruptly make normal life a thing of the past. First, Estrella’s school is shut down after gunfire from the warring factions literally invades the classroom, forcing students to drop to the floor and hope the bullets will miss them. Then she returns home to find her mother gone, a victim, as she later learns, of a kidnapping by one of the warring gangs. We see the mother (Viviana Amaya) only in flashbacks, but it’s clear that she and Estrella loved each other, and that the mother taught her daughter the quiet strength required to cope in a world that has gone mad.
Estrella’s imagination is one thing that will help her survive—before leaving school, a teacher gave her three pieces of chalk which represent three wishes, and the power of those wishes is at least as useful as anything the officials running her city will ever do for her (political posters and television advertisements for a toothy, light-skinned politician form an ironic backdrop to the actual lives led by the people of her town). The other key to her survival is sheer determination, which allows her to take her place among a group of homeless boys run by Shine (Juan Ramón López), and to learn from them the street smarts necessary for her new life.
Each boy has a reason for being on the run, generally not of his own making, but they don’t dwell on their misfortunes. Instead, they take pride in their little victories and their comradeship. They haven’t forgotten how to have fun, either—a scene involving some soccer balls of uncertain origin demonstrates that kids will be kids, no matter their circumstances. On the other hand, these children can be violent, and they’ve already internalized the machismo attitudes of their culture, leading them to initially reject the idea that a “chick” could become one of their number.
Issa López’s Tigers are Not Afraid (Vuelven or “they come back” in Spanish-speaking countries) is set in a very real contemporary Mexico, yet it’s not a strictly realistic movie. The ghosts of those murdered by the gangs haunt the ratty neighborhoods where the kids hang out, and inanimate objects sometimes come alive in ways that blur the lines between shared reality and individual perceptions. Besides, when life is as crazy as it is for these kids, when right and wrong are as distorted as they are in the politics and power struggles of the world they live in, who is to say what’s realistic and is a product of a fevered imagination?
Tigers are Not Afraid is a visually striking film, with tiger motifs everywhere, from graffiti on the rooftops of buildings to a plushie costume worn by one of the characters. The cinematography by Juan Jose Saravia is one of the film’s strong points, capturing the children’s grim circumstances without blinking, but also celebrating their moments of joy, and his work goes a long way to carrying the film when the screenplay (by López) threatens to lose its way. The child actors are also very good, and the fact that López was able to pull such convincing performances from an inexperienced cast is strong evidence of her abilities as a director. It’s been two years since Tigers are Not Afraid made its debut on the festival circuit, to much acclaim, but the merits of this accomplished and still timely film make it more than worth the wait. | Sarah Boslaugh