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Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017)

Ghouls are talking about the fantastical Tigers Are Not Afraid. A journey through the eyes of children surviving the very real ghost towns of a Mexican town overrun by violence and corruption. There is a strength and power for resistance in youth imagination. Prepare to have your heart broken.

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Horrors in Mexico: Femicide and Missing Children

Kat Kushin

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

Tigers Are Not Afraid is an emotional film with a lot of violence against women and children. The film is written and directed by Issa Lopez who says she was inspired by reality to make the film. In an article from NPR In Tigers Are Not Afraid, A Dark Fantasy Amid Mexico’s Drug War, the director explains some of what inspired the film.

There's a universal fascination with the figure of the drug lord, and with the cartels, and a certain type of romance even, which is terrible, that has emerged from it," she says. "But nobody is talking about the children left to their own devices because their parents have been taken, their parents were displaced or sometimes killed. Nobody is addressing this as the proper war it is. And I felt that we needed that story; someone needed to do it.

After doing some research on my own, the information I found was heartbreaking. The brutality against women and children in the film is based on very real things that are extremely horrific. In an article from the Guardian, Mexico: Murders Women Rise Sharply As Drug War Intensifies, a report from Mexico’s interior department states the annual femicide rate in 2016 was 4.4 per 100,000 women. The report goes on to state that of the 52,210 killings of women recorded over a 32 year period, that a third of that number took place from 2010-2017. The article states that the rise in killings of women coincides with Mexico’s militarized offensive against drug cartels which was launched in late 2006 by then-president Felipe Calderon. The highest violence rates and femicide rates take place in areas with high crime, and high drug cartel presence. Many of these murders take place after kidnappings and done outside of the home. Women being murdered in public is said to indicate how they are culturally and systemically devalued.

The study also said that while the vast majority of male homicide victims are killed with firearms, many femicides continue to be by “the most cruel means” such as stabbing, beating and strangling, which it said reflects misogyny.

“This means there has not been success in changing the cultural patterns that devalue women and consider them disposable, allowing for a social permissiveness in the face of violence and its ultimate expression, femicide,” the report said.

The horror of this continues, with the disappearances of girls and women across mexico. In an article Mexico’s Missing Girls Canal, there is focus on Edomex, which is claimed to be the powerhouse of Mexico city’s modernization. However it is also a place entirely unsafe for “Edomex is no-man’s land; it doesn’t exist to the outside world,” said Cynthia Galicia, a legal expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

This is stated because 1,258 girls and women have been reported missing in Edomex between 2011-2012. 53% of that number were children aged 10 to 17. To make matters more horrific, over 448 women have been murdered in the state, their mutilated bodies left and displayed in public places like roads, parks, and shopping areas. This is not the first instance of this, where 379 women were sexually assaulted, murdered and dismembered in Ciudad Juarez, their bodies left in the desert.

Edomex, according to Cynthis Galicia is a "poor state, people are anonymous, and there are no campaign groups, so it has remained invisible.” A big issue being the lack of investigations and accountability for the groups murdering these women and children. In fact, less than 5% of murders, a small handful of trafficking cases, are successfully prosecuted in Mexico. Activists in Mexico are worried if there will ever be justice or reckoning of the Edomex killings, or if that is even possible. The lack of criminal justice presence in these communities, as well as a lack of stored DNA in Mexico, makes convictions and justice seem impossible. In fact, the lack of criminal justice in these areas makes it near impossible to know for certain why this violence is increasing, and how bad it truly is.

Women are fighting back now in Mexico as a call to end this violence. There have been protests and groups of women fighting back against this systemic issue.


Media from this week's episode:

Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017) Director: Issa Lopez

Summary by IMDB: 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.

Tiger's Are Not Afraid: Magical Realism as a Means of Resistance & Perseverance

Gabe Castro

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

I am an absolute sucker for magical realism. The masterminds behind weaving fantastical elements into very real trauma are among my favorite creators. Toni Morrison, Guillermo del Toro, Octavia Butler and now, Issa Lopez. Tigers Are Not Afraid has been compared to Guillermo’s Pan’s Labyrinth, which we covered in our episode about the incredibly talented director. At first, the comparison, though piquing my interest, made me a bit wary of the film. I love Pan’s Labyrinth and every time I revisit the piece, I am met with more to be impressed by - more depth, imagery and pain. I fully understand the comparison and though I wouldn’t say Tigers is a new favorite or that it hits me in quite the same way there is much similarity but there is also so much that is uniquely Issa that I think it would be a disservice to her, to rely so heavily on that comparison. (Last comparison is a CW: both feature child death, be warned).

According to an article in the LA Times titled, How Mexican filmmaker Issa López defied expectations with ‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’ by Carlos Aguilar,

“Tigers Are Not Afraid” was born out of her realization that entire areas of some Mexican cities have become ghost towns as people flee or disappear as cartel-related violence explodes. An unknown number of orphaned children have resulted as the collateral victims of the gruesome conflict.

Issa Lopez’s film, Tigers Are Not Afraid is as much about the magic of youth as it is about growing up too fast in a broken, violent world. Taking place in Mexico, we get a glimpse into a tattered country, it’s people living on edge and forced to adapt to the instability and violence around them. Tigers is a film about persistence, about living on and making due with the world we are given.

Yes, this film has wonderful fantastical elements in it. A trickling line of blood guides us through the narrative and shows us the way. It reminded me of video games like Deadspace where you click a button (R3 or something) and a light appears in the environment to guide you to where you should be going. Or recently, in Cyberpunk, the yellow line that guides you along the map. We have a tiny, black dragon that flies around our protagonist. There is a sweet, little stuffed tiger that communicates with us in warning and mourning. These are a child’s attempt at reasoning with a world that doesn’t make sense. Estrella tempts the boys with a vision of a zoo, futbol field, palace they could live in. And they find one! The zoo is the water full of fish that fight to live on in their tiny, found home. The futbol field is an empty room full of balls. The palace, an old, decrepit building hidden away from the rest of the world where for some short, blissful moments these kids can be kids.

In the New Yorker’s, The Haunted Street Children of “Tigers Are Not Afraid” by Anthony Lane

her film is forever suggesting that the urge to tell stories about oneself, and the nourishing virtues of play, can be a means of survival. Some kids lark around with crime-scene tape, yards away from a body on the sidewalk. Others burn a discarded grand piano for fun. Shine and his crew hole up in what was once a fancy house, where ornamental fish, freed from their tank, still dart about in a puddle on the concrete floor. Upstairs, the lads enjoy a game of soccer, inking numbers on one another’s bare backs, with a permanent marker, to make up for the want of shirts.

One of the more impactful and emotion-setting scenes is in Estrella’s school. She has been living at home alone for some time. And yet, she continues to go about her routine, holding on to the comfort in habit. She continues to go to school. This struck me, as someone who has her own trauma and difficult history, there were many times during my childhood where school was my oasis and I would attend for the escape, the mundanity and comfort. And at first, the school is that for Estrella. The teacher tells them to create their own fairy tales using princes, magic and tigers. But that joy and imagination is cut short when we hear gunshots outside. I think about the youth even here who face the real threat of school shootings and have been far too afraid for the scant amount of years they’ve been here. The teacher, bless her, looks to distract the rattled Estrella and gives her three pieces of chalk to make wishes. Like a Monkey’s Paw, we will come to realize each of these wishes, though granted always come at a steep price. Just like the hardened, violent life outdoors, this story does not have a happily ever after but rather a To Be Continue, Estrella will persevere. Slowly, these habits and sources of comfort are stripped away. The school is closed after the shooting, Estrella leaves her home because she is hungry and alone, and she is forced to break each piece of chalk to grant her wishes.

The horror elements in this film reminded me of Crimson Peak, again I’m sorry for comparing to a del Toro! They were creepy and scary in the way that you imagine these things would be for a child that is dissociating and projecting her real anxieties into monsters. They weren’t so much scary as they were unsettling, because in the end they were real. Like all magical realism, we have a fictional and fantastical explanation for the events and we have the blunt, unapologetic reality. Estrella is haunted by a mysterious woman who at first seems dangerous and later, prophetic and protective.

Our little crew of protagonists, resilient and lovable kids are the best and most heartbreaking part of this film. Each one is charming, soft and broken. We learn their traumas as we progress, Morro the youngest of the crew, adorable and non-verbal had experienced something so awful he never spoke again. Our unlikely hero, Shine’ holds on to a phone belonging to the monstrous lowly villain because it holds the only photo he has of his mother.

Anthony Lane from the New Yorker goes on to say,

“Every time I make a wish, something really bad happens,” Estrella says. The phantasmal, in other words, offers no respite; it is simply part of the detritus that litters the townscape, making it that much easier for the residents—who are all too accustomed, God knows, to a ruined reality—to accept the imagined as true. What’s more, there will always be times when the visions run dry and even the imagination gives up the ghost. As Shine says to Estrella, “There are no wishes. There’s nothing. Not even tigers. We’re all there is.”

In the end, we are confronted with the sharp reality of the world, that there is no real escape from the pain and suffering. That Estrella will grow in this Ghost Town or she will die, like the many other children lost in the shadows of a war they had no part in.


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