[Boston Underground Film Festival] Interviews: Issa Lopéz Talks About Her Dark Fairy Tale Tigers Are Not Afraid

Tigers Are Not Afraid screened at BUFF

The fact that Issa Lopéz is virtually unknown to mainstream American filmgoers is yet another sad indictment of this country’s ignorance of our neighbors to the south, to say nothing of the world in general. In a time of growing tension between the United States and Mexico, it behooves all of us to drop everything—especially our preconceptions—and flock to Tigers Are Not Afraid, which so pointedly describes a situation that helps clarify the hopelessness at the root of so much borderland migration.

Over the past two decades Issa Lopéz has established herself as a creative talent in a variety of genres. She started her career as a writer and director for the Mexican version of Sesame Street, then dabbled in telenovelas for a while before directing major features for Sony and Warner Brothers in her homeland. But at heart she harbors a longstanding fascination to the horror genre. For her, horror films are typically not the ghoulish Halloween fare often served up to American audiences, but more serious films tempered with the literary nuances of the magical realism so beloved in Latin America. Indeed, Tigers Are Not Afraid had its world premiere at Fantastic Fest, where it took the laurels as Best Horror Picture.

To Lopéz, the ultimate horror in Tigers is “finding one’s mother in the dark, in a pile of dead bodies,” as experienced by the teenaged Estrella. “But,” adds the director, “it is also the most touching and sweetest moment when the mother covers her face as it is illuminated by the light of her daughter’s cellphone. It is by confronting the ghosts of her past, with the help of this gesture from beyond the grave. that Estrella is empowered to become an adult and take control of her situation.”

According to Lopéz, this is a story that wrote itself: “It is not my voice, but the movie’s voice.” In her hands, Tigers Are Not Afraid is not a polemic, but a deeply personal film, a story that she needed to write for herself “to stay sane.” Lopéz says she was passionate about making it because she herself was in such pain and fear over the violence she was witnessing in her own country. “I was in pain and was trying to be respectful of their pain,” she declares, referring to the children she portrays in her film. “Sometimes we’re not prepared to be exposed to very raw and very current truths.”

In casting the film, Lopéz chose 200 semifinalists out of a pool of 600 hopefuls she sought with the help of schools and agencies, and by enlisting the legendary Brazilian talent maven Fátima Toledo to help make the final selections. None of the children who made the final cut had a great deal of experience, Lopéz recounts: “They played a few minor roles here and there, but they were largely inexperienced. The problem I had to face is that children in Mexico are usually terrible actors,” she says with a laugh. “But there is a musicality in their lives.”

Working with the children proved to be a fruitful experience for Lopéz. “My own technique is based on the fact that children go through stuff so quickly, grow up so quickly. What worked for me is that we were very straight with them so they felt comfortable about opening themselves up emotionally. I lost my own mother when I was younger—not violently—but there was still that feeling of not finding her at home, of not having closure, of having this ghost following you, as with Estrella in the film.”

Working on the set—all scenes were shot in Mexico City despite their rural feel--“I had to connect with my own powerful emotion so the kids would trust me,” adds Lopéz. “It is a feeling of impotence at the center, of being abandoned by someone who has taken care of you.”

When asked whether she is worried about being targeted by the drug lords whose violence she exposes in the film, Issa Lopéz answers bravely, even with a touch of nonchalance: “The drug cartels don’t give a damn about what is said.” She maintains that the film was not made to harangue them, but to communicate to audiences the reality of life in many Mexican communities today. Besides, she argues, the film is only about drug wars on a very surface level. At its deepest core, this is a parable of human emotion, of the perennial battle between good and evil, affirming the values of love and community and light when challenged by hate and conflict and darkness.

-Edward Moran