Tigers Are Not Afraid

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Tigers Are Not Afraid
"The performances that director Issa López gets out of the children, most of whom are new to acting, are extraordinary."

When you're surrounded by death every day, it begins to blur into life, the distinction between the two becoming less and less clear. You have to be like a tiger, reflecting on what you have already survived and setting aside fear. This is what Estrella (Paola Lara) tells herself when she's lying on the floor of her classroom hoping that the gunmen whose shots are echoing through the building don't get too close. Her teacher, seeing how she's shaking, presses three pieces of chalk into her hand and tells her that she has three wishes. But in Mexico's brutal gangland, even wishes come at a price.

When Estrella gets home, her mother isn't there. She waits. She must just have been delayed somewhere. Days pass. She wishes for her mother to come back. Her wish seems to come true, but her mother no longer has a physical body. Instead she is a shadow, and intense, ghostly presence, overwhelming the girl, who can no longer bear to be there. So she runs off to try and join a local street gang. At first they don't want her, telling her that a girl will be a liability (which is true in a way - gangsters are more interested in kidnapping girls than boys), but she persists, and then they tell her that they will accept her if she first kills a man - the man they believe has killed her mother. And so it begins.

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Estrella is ten. Some of the gang members are quite a bit younger. Little Mora, so affected by some past trauma that he doesn't speak, carries his plush tiger with him everywhere. He's looking for a mother figure and Estrella will do. Leader El Shine (Juan Ramón López), however, is less comfortable with her presence. Her natural authority and tendency to come up with ideas threatens his standing. All the same, some part of him yearns to be able to let go of his responsibilities from time to time - to just be a kid - and Estrella understands that. Sometimes they squat side by side in ruined buildings reflecting on the state of the only world they've ever known.

The performances that director Issa López gets out of the children, most of whom are new to acting, are extraordinary - natural and raw, immediately immersing the viewer in what's happening. Juan Ramón López is the standout, in the most difficult role, but Paola Lara keeps pace with him well. Through them we explore the fate of children whose fates are not even documented, forgotten about after their parents disappear or are killed. Tens of thousands of children. The pseudo-family of the gang we follow here still finds room for joyful moments, laughing together around looted television sets, sharing food and telling stories. Stealing to eat doesn't seem to present them with great difficulty. But when they unknowingly steal a phone that happens to be of great value to powerful gangster El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), their lives are on the lines.

Bluntly realistic yet shot through with fantasy elements which illuminate the way even this world looks through children's eyes, Tigers Are Not Afraid interweaves folklore with the law of the jungle. A hit at Fantasia and the other festivals where it has screened, it has marked out its director as one of the most impressive new talents in the business. See for yourself. Hear it roar.

Reviewed on: 03 Aug 2018
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A dark fairy tale about a gang of five children trying to survive the horrific violence of the cartels and the ghosts created every day by the drug war.

Director: Issa López

Writer: Issa López

Starring: Paola Lara, Hanssel Casillas, Rodrigo Cortes, Tenoch Huerta, Juan Ramón López

Year: 2017

Runtime: 83 minutes

Country: Mexico


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