After facing a year’s worth of rejection letters from festival after festival, Issa López’s genre-bending fantasy/horror film Tigers Are Not Afraid was finally granted late acceptance into Fantastic Fest 2017, where it premiered last September. I wasn’t in attendance that night, but I imagine that the rejecting festivals began rueing their mistake long before the credits rolled.
Fantastic Festival awarded López its Best Horror Director distinction that night, and Tigers has gone on to become somewhat of a festival darling since. Consistently well-received by audiences, it has racked up over 20 awards (and counting) to date and has even earned praise from contemporaries as accomplished and beloved as Guillermo del Toro.
Enticed by all of the hype surrounding this new-to-me director, I was stoked for an opportunity to screen Tigers on its most recent stop at Toronto’s Fantasia Film Festival. I’m even more stoked to report that it didn’t disappoint.
Tigers Are Not Afraid takes place in a cartel-ridden Mexican border city, ravaged by violent crime. With corrupt official authorities turning a blind eye to the chaos, Estrella (Paola Lara) has nowhere to turn when the cartel kidnaps her mother but to a gang of street children—fellow casualties orphaned by the drug war.
One of the street boys, Shine (Juan Ramón López), steals a cell phone from cartel gangster Caco (Ianis Guerrero) because it holds the last picture he has of his murdered mother. But the phone also houses something more incriminating than photos, and as the right-hand lackey of hopeful elected official El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), Caco will stop at nothing to get it back.
What ensues is a film that elementally defies categorization at every turn, one that is entirely fantastical at the same time that it’s devastatingly realistic. It paints a heartbreaking portrait of the brutality of the world on our most innocent and vulnerable, the children robbed of protectors and allies, but let’s the children tell the story from their own imagination-colored perspectives.
In this way, the interwoven sinister fantasies feel authentic, gritty, and believable because we’re aligned, right at eye-level, with these children. Their experiences are ours, and because they’re forced—far too early and unjustly—to account for their own survival, their experiences are all the more valid and significant.
These fantasies also felt believable because of the way López’s vision was realized on-screen, with the help of cinematographer Juan Jose Saravia. Perspective is particularly important when your goal is to place the audience behind the eyes of the children rather than in front of them, and Saravia does an excellent job in multiple ways. He fluidly moves between tight, personal close-ups and low, wide-angle shots, authentically communicating the world as it is to a kid—small, manageable, and hyper-focused in one moment, while unfathomably massive, daunting, and dangerous in the next.
Another branch of Tigers’ success is in its precocious, young actors. Taking well to López’s writing and direction, they each delivered exceptional performances easily in-line with recent child-centric horror releases like It and Veronica, as well as last year’s child-centric drama The Florida Project.
In all, Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is a film full of exciting successes. While it might subvert traditional genre compartmentalization, it doesn’t suffer from disjointedness and instead becomes a masterful blend of the best bits of everything.
López said it best herself in an interview with Film School Rejects: “It is a queer, queer, strange creature that I created. It’s hard to pin [Tigers] in one territory. It’s not an art house, but it is. It’s not a horror, but it is. It’s not a social drama, but it is.” And worth watching? It certainly is.