'Tigers Are Not Afraid': Issa López's Horror Film, Set In Mexico's Drug War Director Issa López blends magical realism and horror with the current events of her native country in the story of young Estrella, who meets a street gang of fellow orphan children.

In 'Tigers Are Not Afraid,' A Dark Fantasy Amid Mexico's Drug War

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Estrella is given three wishes after a tragic event at school, only to find out 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 from that. It takes place during Mexico's violent, bloody drug war. One day, Estrella's mom is taken by the cartels, and in search of finding her she meets a boy in a tiger mask named Shiny (ph). He lives on the streets 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" is directed and written by Issa Lopez, who says it took her a while to understand how personal a story she tells in this film.

ISSA LOPEZ: 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.

FADEL: Really, it feels like death becomes a character in the film, and the dead literally come to life.

LOPEZ: Yeah. And 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.

FADEL: The movie is filled with elements of magical realism, including that blood that follows this little girl around.

LOPEZ: Yes, 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 living 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.

FADEL: And with all these sort of fantastical elements it was still very - you were tackling very real issues, the intertwining of corruption and violence and politics in the country that you grew up in.

LOPEZ: 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 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, you know, 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 these war are being put in cages? So it's particularly urgent. And if horror is going to be the main - the way to deliver this message, fantastic. Let's go with it.

FADEL: This is, like you said, a story about war, a story about children surviving and living through war, about death and violence. And can you talk a little bit about now that it's being distributed widely? How has it impacted other places that are going through their own turmoil?

LOPEZ: 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.

FADEL: There was one scene in the movie where the kids are sort of playing make-believe on a stage. And I remember a very specific - 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.

LOPEZ: That's a - you know, I didn't know that. But that's so moving because, again, through telling the 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. And it's just inside children to stand up and create a character and portray it. And it doesn't matter if it's Syrian, or it's in Russian or in Korean or - it doesn't matter what language.

FADEL: You know, you're also a woman in an industry with very few women, especially in the genre of horror. Are there any particular obstacles that you faced because of that?

LOPEZ: 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, you know, 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. It's genero. 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 in different voices and that is priceless.

FADEL: "Tigers Are Not Afraid" is directed and written by Issa Lopez. Thank you so much for joining the program.

LOPEZ: My absolute pleasure. Thank you.


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