‘Tigers are Not Afraid’ (2017): Ghosts, Wishes, and Tigers Tell the Story of Five Children Amidst a Drug War

Welcome to the Women in Horror column. Once a month, we highlight the work of women in the horror genre.

A young boy named Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez) stands in an alleyway, spray-painting a tiger on the walls. The black paint drips fresh as a narrator tells the story of a prince. This month’s highlighted film on Shudder for Women in Horror is Tigers Are Not Afraid (Vuelven) (2017), written and directed by Issa Lopez. It’s a story about five Mexican children whose lives have been devastated by the ongoing drug war. When Estrella’s (Paola Lara) teacher gives her three magic pieces of chalk that grant her three wishes, the children’s lives drastically change into a game of cat and mouse.

“Once upon a time, there was a prince who wanted to be a tiger,” says Estrella. What do you think of when you hear the word “fairy tales?” Estrella’s classmates shout words like “princess,” “fairies,” “wishes,” and “ghosts”. The elements we all associate with fairy tales are sprinkled throughout aspects of the film, as the children cope with their real-life horrors. The children tell stories of tigers and escaping as paintings move on the walls to illustrate their plight. The supernatural elements move and mirror their experiences. Tigers are used as a shield for the children- conduits for their bravery and resilience. The chalk represents an escape from their reality. Ghosts linger and haunt and children are murdered. When Estrella makes a wish in an attempt to ease the pain she lives with, horrors follow in relentless pursuit of her childhood. She believes the wishes are a curse, but the real curse is the ongoing war. As she pushes forward to break free from the nightmare, she truly becomes a warrior like her mother said she was. The bond between lost orphans ups the emotional ante of this film. The children are sisters and brothers, friends, and even parents to each other. When moments of terror arise, their instinct to protect what they have left gives them an edge against their adult foes.

Five children standing in the streets of a Mexican city. They are pushing a basket full of found items- the only things they own.
Image courtesy of Filmadora Nacional Peligrosa

The opening scene of Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez) and his graffiti tiger is just one of the film’s many striking shots. Children playing limbo in the street with caution tape. Blood tracing the walls of a home where a mother was taken. Young boys painted crying as they say goodbye to a friend. These are all images that will haunt your thoughts even after the film is over. Issa Lopez merges horror with fantasy and reality, and beautifully tells a story of monsters and princes, warriors and killers. With Estrella as the narrator, the audience watches as she starts her fairytale on paper in a classroom and finishes it on the other side of an open field. “Tigers are not afraid. They went through all the bad stuff and came out on the other side. They are Kings of this Kingdom of Broken Things.”

Tigers Are Not Afraid has received a total of 51 awards across film festivals worldwide. This includes three Diosas de Plata awards and ten nominations for Premio Ariel (The Ariel Award) Mexican Academy of Cinematographic Arts and Sciences (AMACC). Issa Lopez has written eleven scripts that have been produced and directed four of them herself. Tigers Are Not Afraid, being her most nominated and award-winning film, is a landmark in the timeline of Lopez’s long-lasting and bright career. She has future projects lined up with Guillermo Del Toro, Searchlight Pictures, and Blumhouse to produce her work.

The brilliance of Tigers Are Not Afraid can be watched today on Shudder.