She achieved success creating commercial films but found her voice with this indie masterpiece.
The Shallow Pocket Project is a series of essays based on conversations with the brilliant filmmakers behind the independent films that we love. Check out our last interview with Graham Skipper (director of Sequence Break). Special thanks to my fellow Dorks at the In the Mouth of Dorkness podcast, especially William Dass and Darren Smith.
Tigers are Not Afraid could exist in any Mexican border city that has been gutted by cartel violence. The place is a ghost town. Estrella (Paola Lara) is a young girl who resorts to joining one of the roving gangs of children, the forgotten and abandoned orphans of the drug war. To protect her, she only has the spirit of her mother and three wishes right out of a fairytale.
Writer/Director Issa López initiates you into Shine’s (Juan Ramón López) gang along with Estrella and you observe them with as much caution and wonder as they watch each other. You are gazing upon them from the shadows and peeking from behind railings. Looking into the lives of these children, you see what you expect. Their existences are desperate, transient, and in many cases short, but that is not what concerns this film. Tigers are Not Afraid is not about how these kids are pitiable, but how they are resourceful, strong, and enchanting.
I’ve had the privilege of seeing Tigers are Not Afraid twice, both times at festivals, once as part of Fantastic Fest 2017 in Austin, Texas, and again at Lost Weekend IX in Winchester, Virginia. One needs at least two sits with this film, first to wade into this shrouded world of violence and make-believe and another to get lost in it. I’ve led an entirely blessed life. I don’t know the first thing about struggling for survival or starving for parental love. I barely know what it means to mourn. But I do know what it is to be a kid. López uses the universal, ineffable magic of childhood – play, pretend, and fantasy – to evoke a level of empathy where you don’t just feel for those children, but you feel to the slightest of degrees like those children.
At both festivals I attended, Tigers are Not Afraid was marvelously and rightfully well received. López received the ‘Best Horror Director’ award at Fantastic Fest and ‘Best Screenplay’ at Lost Weekend IX. I felt in good company with my fellow festivalgoers sinking into deep discussions about the film’s use of visual metaphor, and we debated whether Estrella’s supernatural protections were real or vividly imagined. When the opportunity arose to interview Issa Lopez and pick her brain, I leaped at the chance.
We were lucky enough to catch López at her home in Mexico where she was swapping luggage, a brief respite in the Tigers are Not Afraid world tour. It had a mere eight months since Fantastic Fest and her film has won no less than 27 awards on the International Film Festival circuit, including the Black Tulip (Jury Award) at the Imagine International Fantastic Film Festival in Amsterdam and ‘best feature’ at the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival, where she had literally just been. I went to Lopez’s Wikipedia page to confirm that number, but I didn’t initially count that number. Lopez told us that number. Bragging? Maybe a little, but when you know the story of Tigers are Not Afraid you can’t blame her. We were catching her on a bit of a high, a high that at one point in the life of this film seemed impossible.
Before getting late acceptance into Fantastic Fest 2017, Tigers are Not Afraid faced rejection after rejection – Venice, Toronto, Cannes, Tribeca, SXSW – and that can get to a person. “It was an entire year of no. And the way you read no is, ‘No, your movie’s not good enough for us.’” López has had a tremendous amount of success in Mexico with screenwriting and directing wildly popular, but inarguably more commercial films. Her two previous feature films Efectos secundarios (2006) and Casi Divas (2008), both comedies that are centered around groups of gorgeous young women trying to find their way in the world, had glowing reviews and were of the top-grossing Mexican films of their year. There are personal elements to these films for Lopez. She is, herself, a gorgeous woman who has and will continue to be making her way in the world, but Tigers are Not Afraid was a different sort of project and was a different sort of personal. “I’d made this movie, which, at that point, captured everything I believed about cinema and what I had to say in cinema. And it was rejected so many times. So it was devastating. The word is devastating.”
The germ of the idea that became Tigers are Not Afraid came at a time when López felt her creative identity languishing. She had moved to Los Angeles based on a handshake with a big producer to make one of her comedies in Hollywood. That project suffered a slow death in a development wasteland and she came to a sobering realization. “I realized that A, my career had disappeared. I hadn’t shot a movie in five years. And B, my voice was disappearing too, because I was trying to make these movies in a way that still sounded and felt like me, but that would please someone else’s vision. And a lot of people are really good at doing that. I’m not. I am not.”
She was doing research interviews for another film script, a historical drama about drug trafficking during WWII, when one of her experts started comparing the drug trade in the 40s to the current cartel epidemic in Mexico. The expert referred to the orphans of Juarez that wander the city in packs, left to fend for themselves after the rampant violence has robbed them of their parents. Their plight captured her heart and her imagination. She felt compelled to present their dire circumstances, but not by way of documentary or drama. She wanted to show these children coping and surviving in a way that she had as a child after her mother died– by creating kingdoms in their minds. “I couldn’t help taking it with my own passion for the unreal, and the surreal, and the magical. And the things that are not encompassed by reason and the things that we can explain and can theorize. I think that it was an incredible chance to portray reality but in a wider way. Capturing more than what it is there.”
López went into creating the darkly fantastical world that would become Tigers are Not Afraid with the intention of bringing to light someone else’s story that desperately needed telling, but in doing so she very much found her self. The passion she found in the writing infused her and her team in the making of this film. “It was a very carefully crafted movie. We really took our time with it. We really edited for a year. We worked on the music to make it into something that we entirely believed was something delicate and beautiful.”
López had poured her entire self into this project, and the big, ostentatious film festivals were simply not recognizing it – it was not what they were looking for. But then she had thought, “I had this moment of, ‘Hey, what if? What about genre festivals?’ And I sent it to Fantastic Fest and it immediately got picked up.” The genre fans of Fantastic Fest got it immediately. “The movie, being the little underdog that nobody knew anything about, and was accepted last in the festival, and was played at 3:00 PM, got all this attention. And it just started growing and growing, and getting applause and all the reaction from the audience, and then the reviews, and then the rest is history.”
No one can really say what genre fans saw in Tigers are Not Afraid that the gatekeepers at prestigious film festivals did not, but it may have something to so with its amorphous identity. “It is a queer, queer, strange creature that I created. It’s hard to pin that movie in one territory. It’s not an art house, but it is. It’s not a horror, but it is. It is not a social drama, but it is.” But maybe what is important about a piece of art is not what it is, but who it is. Issa López set out to make a movie about others and made one about herself. Perhaps the people who needed to see Tigers are Not Afraid would be the people who would look at her narrative and see themselves.
Putting Tigers are Not Afraid out into the world has been a daring and vulnerable journey for López. “You make something that is very delicate, in the sense that it’s really, really close to your spirit and who you are. And it’s just sort of getting naked in front of the world. That’s not a thing that I do, at all. Maybe the getting naked, yes. But not the getting naked in the soul.” The very thought of presenting such a stark truth seems positively mortifying, but in her travels with Tigers are Not Afraid, López has found a commonality with genre fans that has made her feel entirely seen and accepted.
Film is meant to be a safe-haven from the ordinary – a contrast to your circumstances. For some, it can be a flight of fancy, but for López and many others, it is a defense mechanism. “I like to believe that a lot of fans of horror, of fantasy … in many, many, many cases … not in all cases, but I think it’s sort of a common experience that we have of childhood. And we became so obsessed with fantasy, and with science fiction, and with horror because it was so distant from our own experiences.” In many ways, creating Tigers are Not Afraid was López expressing her truth instead of escaping it. “In this movie, I just went out and said, ‘Okay. Here it is. I am this little girl who lost her mother and has been fighting to belong, and survive, and to learn that she’s a warrior and she’s going to be fine.’ It’s my own story.”
I feel honored to be included in the treasured few genre fans that have gotten to see and be captivated by Issa López’s Tigers are Not Afraid, but this film deserves better. Twenty-seven (and counting) awards and still no distribution, but Issa Lopez and Tigers are Not Afraid have warriors of their own, Guillermo Del Toro (The Shape of Water), Neil Gaiman (American Gods), and Stephen King chief among them.
To make raw, personal art is a brave and dangerous thing, and Issa López found the strength within herself by first being a champion for others. She was compelled to give a voice to the orphans in Juarez and all over the world that have been overlooked amidst violence, and in doing so found the voice of her inner artist that had been stifled by trying to please others. “You have to listen to that voice and let it speak, and let it sing, and sit your ass down and put aside the rest and make it happen. It doesn’t matter if it’s by writing a script a thousand times. One scene, one moment, one image that captures that voice, will let the rest of the movie happen.”
You can listen to our entire, unedited and spoiler-free conversation with Writer/Director Issa López on the In The Mouth of Dorkness podcast hosted by Brad Gullickson, William Dass and myself. We get deep into what its like to cast and direct child actors, she recommends a bunch of movies that also advocate for the voiceless children around the world and we dork out a bit about Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic.