‘Tigers are Not Afraid’ Gives Children a Childhood Amidst Horror

Kids will be kids, even while fighting battles both supernatural and mundane.

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Still: Tigers are Not Afraid, 2017

The story of Tigers Are Not Afraid is scary enough for children. It is terrifying to viewers as well, because the true horrors are all real. Children today see things we could never have made up.

The movie opens with Estrella (Paola Lara) losing everything and going for help to neighborhood kid Shine (Juan Ramón López) and his gang. It is implied that these children have already lost everything. As the story progresses however, it seems that while all of them are fairly well versed in surviving on the streets, they may have only too recently lost their parents.

This is solidified by pictures on a cell phone. This phone will be the focal point or the catalyst of every major conflict for the rest of the film. It is a prop: the children have no one to call, no one to go to for help. Rather than being a tool it becomes a reminder of their own brief mortality.

The childrens’ transition into transience and survival implies that life in this hostile environment was a hardship always considered, just beneath the surface of their otherwise domestic lives. Yet through out the film, children are allowed ample time to be children. They play, they dance, they celebrate each other’s victories, and feel the defeats as a group in ways that only the extremely young can.

Tigers provides magical realism slowly. The first few times something spooky begins building the camera pans away and we are cut directly into another scene. There is a always a sense looming that Estrella is processing and experiencing things in ways we are not privy to, including communicating with her mother the first time she reappears. As we delve further into the reality of their search for their parents and desire to survive, we see what at first seemed a dark fairy tale for lost children becomes something far too real.

Perhaps hindered by too many separate horror elements, the distinct outlets and translations of trauma into the supernatural are as diverse as a child’s imagination. Drawing from her own experience of being orphaned as a child, director and writer Issa López took on crafting the beginning of her film in the editing room.

Many scenes were shot in sequence, meaning she had several elements to stitch together without a full idea from the onset what the final themes would be. This ultimately shows in the final film, where the established motifs early on are somewhat lost at its midpoint. They occasionally return in stories and phrases the children use to bolster each other against the siege of hunger, the Huascas gang members, and random shootouts that threaten them.

There’s a healthy use of both 2D and 3D animation, the first one to great effect. Fairy tale elements return at times of extreme stress or emotion, reflecting a sort of dissociation by Estrella. Eventually, these visions, whether or not real, will help her piece together a solution to whatever murderous conflict she finds herself in.

Much has been said already of cinematographer Juan Jose Saravia’s use of shadow to mask low grade CGI, but his vision really shines through in capturing each space the children exist in. Each new environment is rendered to full effect with still lifes and establishing shots as a way to break up otherwise bleak narrative. These normalize what may otherwise be an emotionally unbearable story of orphans and child murder for the viewer.

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Still: Tigers are Not Afraid, 2017

We are partaking in the trauma with the same childlike detachment as our heroes, able to instead consider the strange sculptural decorations they create with cast off toy and the magic of an indoor fish pond. We experience their surroundings alongside them. We see as they do.

In pursuit of a revenge Estrella did not quite know she required, every single other thing in the narrative is sacrificed; safe harbor and child allies alike. Many elements are more reminiscent of a Grimm tale than anything else, but this story will defy the logic and justices we assume are just another few cinematic minutes in the future. Rather than the bloody fairy tale ending we are expecting, we are given a bleak outcome in a world that has become already too horrifying in a mundane sense. In this way, it’s possible Tigers gives us the paranormal as a means to cope with truths we otherwise could not handle.

Overall, Tigers is a beautifully rendered film that relies on characters more than narrative to deliver. Its usage of magical realism and classic horror aesthetics adds an opposing force to the powerful physicality of gun shots and gang members in a way completely unique. Go buy a ticket to see it.

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