Tigers Are Not Afraid/ Vuelven, directed by Issa López is a film that centers around a group of kids who have sought shelter among the ruins of a town infected by gang violence. After Estrella’s mother goes missing and is presumed dead she joins the local boys gang of orphaned children. El Shine, the group’s leader, is hesitant at first to accept Estrella. The boys have not only dealt with familial trauma but loss of their own due to the local gang members known as Los Huascas . Shine states that women bring bad luck but pressures Estrella to murder one of the gang members (Cacao) as initiation into the group. Estrella clutches magic chalk that is supposed to grant her 3 wishes; she wishes for Cacao’s death and it is granted. But this isn’t a film about magic chalk or magical creatures that stand in as grim guardian angels; it’s about the dark reality of gang violence in Mexico, the trauma that lingers, and the children who are lost within the bloody mess. Each child desperately clings to any sense of normalcy through playing soccer, watching TV, or simply being with each other. Shine and Estrella, who have both lost their mothers, take on paternal roles as their trauma haunts them.
Estrella’s trauma literally haunts her in every sense of the word. The emotional trauma of losing her mother returns to her every night in small rivers of blood that slither through her vacant home and follow her around the ghost town ruins. Her mother’s plastic wrapped body lurks in the shadows and demands Estrella to take her to El Chino, a local politician running a campaign for office. The loud whispers of her mother’s demands from beyond the grave terrify Estrella who is struggling to process this dangerous request. It isn’t that she is unwilling to face her trauma or that she is ignoring it, it’s that she’s a child who is unsure how to process it. Her mother’s warnings are the reason she leaves home to join the other children. She yearns for her childhood and family. The stream of blood isn’t her mother alone but the culmination of all the lives lost, the lives of the townspeople who have since perished. There is no justice for those who are gone, the politicians and the police have gone corrupt and turned a blind eye to a whole generation of lost children. Estrella is the voice of the forgotten and lost, her trauma is a generational one and unfortunately has become her burden to carry. However, through this incredibly unfortunate circumstance, she has become empowered. She has gained the courage to face the evil that torments her.
Bravery in the face of gang violence comes at a heavy price, which is a reality for many people in Mexico and Central American countries. People often face the difficult choice of endangering themselves or their family by resisting gang violence. Many head north to the US seeking asylum because the reality is that there is no other choice. While Estrella’s character represents strength and hope, Shine’s story is a representation of the grim reality of violence. Shine’s mother was taken by Cacao after he burned their house down. While running out he took Shine’s mother and left him nothing but a burn scar and a lighter. He clutches to Cacao’s phone that holds the last picture of his mother. Shine’s body and possessions are the constant reminder of horror, a burden he must carry that fuels him. He is a protective shield for the kids, he carries the weapons and tools of the gangsters but carries the burden of fear for children, whenever they must hide or relocate he leads them to safety. He knows that children who are taken by the Huascas are never seen again and that women have a worse fate. Shine’s demeanor and matter-of-fact attitude is a reminder of reality; there are no wishes that come true.
As bleak as it sounds, and as central as the theme of violence is to the film, the specific violence against children is not gratuitous in it’s depiction. Gendered violence is also at the center of the film, the missing sign of Estrella’s mother is reminiscent of the countless women of Juarez and femicidos (femicides) in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Countless women and children either join gangs, leave or die; Shine sheds light on a horrible truth the audience may not want to face. It’s the actual horror, not the ghosts of the victims or the slithering river of blood but reality itself. The fantasy aspects of the film are the hope for escape and even revenge.
Similar to stories like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, Luis Mandoki’s Voces Inocentes or folk tales like La Llorona; Tigers Are Not Afraid highlights the dark realities that are often ignored, resurrects stories of the forgotten who deserve justice and provide hope for the future with small victories. Mis hijos is the desperate cry of the slain, the physical scars are reminders of the past and civil war destroys the innocent. The children are the next generation who carry the burden of problems created many years before their existence and it is up to them to fight; son guerrillas que luchan por el futuro, they are warriors who fight for the future. Even if reality feels bleak they persevere, son los tigres que gobiernan esta tierra rota, they are the tigers who govern this broken land. This fight against the injustice mirrors the fight in reality; the people cannot rely on the state or police to save them as they are complicit in the violence. Issa López has entered into the horror cinema landscape with a heartbreaking fairy tale that is the right balance of magical realism and bold outcry against the atrocities that occur today in Mexico and the unspoken of effects on children; she has highlighted the ongoing crisis by focusing on the most vulnerable. Tigers Are Not Afraid is now showing selected theatres and is available for streaming on Shudder.