When reality is so littered by authentic, tangible horror—nationalism, racism, violence, environmental catastrophe—horror stories theoretically lose their luster. But not for Issa López. Tigers Are Not Afraid, her new movie set along the U.S.-Mexico border, functions as a mirror reflecting those real world horrors. Estrella (Paola Lara) and Shine (Juan Ramón López), two orphaned children living in a border town emptied of people and populated by ghosts, struggle to survive on their own every single day: Deprived of custodians, they’re forced to find food and shelter in a region governed by armed men who want to kill them. (Also, Estrella can’t shake the literal specter of her dead mother.)
Packed into that struggle are López’s insights on the mechanisms of that border crisis, her deep understanding of what the crisis represents and how it pushes people afflicted by it to flee from one danger toward new ones. At the same time, Tigers Are Not Afraid isn’t intended as commentary on the appalling humanitarian disaster permitted to unfold in the American South by xenophobic right-wing cravens; it’s her version of the hero’s journey, set against a backdrop familiar to her and wrapped up in a narrative mode she’s loved since childhood.
López recently chatted with Paste about that mode, the fairy tale mode, as well as the sociopolitical “stuff” of her film and the purpose horror serves in an increasingly dark world:
Paste: Maybe this is me, but I get the sense that the well has dried up on the fairy tale tradition in pop culture. Where do you think the fairy tales have gone?
Issa López: I don’t believe you could ever kill the fairy tale, because the fairy tale is a different name for the folk tale and old wisdom. A certain very specific variety of it has been really milked lately, but that doesn’t mean that the dark heart that they come from is not beating. That’s the thing, you know: fairytales come from a very dark place, and if you read the original versions of them, they’re honestly horror stories. There’s magic and horror deeply imbued in all of them.
So what I’m doing with Tigers is simply going back to the source. My feeling is every time that we feel that one story that we tell—because this is what we do as a species, we tell stories to ourselves—one of the varieties of the stories we tell ourselves is starting to feel tired, the only thing you have to do is go back to its place of origin. And that’s the dark fairy tale. And this is what I’m trying to do here.
Paste: Do you feel that when culture doesn’t go back to that dark heart that you refer to, culture suffers by getting away from that source, that way of looking at our lives through fairy tales?
López: I think that the possibilities and the ways of telling a story are infinite, and it’s perfectly fair to go into a very, very sanitized version of any story. And it’s fine! Culture swings. Right now we’re in a moment where we are trying to keep our children away from horror because it’s so easy to run into it. The excess of information and access to information that we have puts them in the path of horror all the time. The fact that children in the U.S. now have to take classes to learn how to survive a shootout in their school is more than enough reason for parents to keep them, entertainmentwise, in a pretty “innocent” place. That said, what matters to me is that we don’t forget the other side, because it is there, it will always be there, and if we don’t look at it, we’re going to be completely shocked when horror in the real world comes jumping at us. This is who we are. We need to look at ourselves in the mirror from time to time.
Paste: It sounds like you’re saying that there’s a necessity for audiences, young or old, to be exposed to horror, whether couched in more widely known forms of the genre or couched in that fairy tale tradition
López: It is necessary. I think it’s a choice to decide the when. The truth is, me and a bunch of geek friends of mine were exposed very early to horror. My personal feeling is we didn’t suffer psychological damage from it. [laughs] Who knows, you know? We have all been to therapy, but I think we all end up in therapy anyways! There is a beauty, and it’s human nature, in sitting around a campfire and telling a ghost story, a scary story. It’s part of growing up, to be able to look at fear even if it is through your fingers in front of your eyes. It’s important to do that, because otherwise you’re unprepared. It’s a natural mechanism to develop the mind, to understand that there’s a dark side to us and to embrace it.
Paste: Talking about therapy, I watched Tales From the Crypt and Friday the 13th movies when I was in middle school, and I’m in therapy, too, but not because of those. At least I don’t think. So I totally understand.
López: I’m with you! I have very weird circumstances in my life that have to do with Tigers. I lost my mother when I was very young, as a character does in the movie, and in order to make it up, given that we had received a very bad piece of news, my father told me and my sister, “Okay, so mom is gone, but are there things in your upbringing that you would change now that the administration has changed?” And I raised my hand, and I said, “I want to be able to watch horror movies.” The first thing I asked. So I was watching Alien and The Shining at eight and nine. It was tremendous. But you’re completely right. I don’t think that the reasons that I ended up getting therapy were related to that particular side of my life!
Paste: As I was watching the movie, I kept coming back to that story, about another character not being able to come back to humanity. I feel like the film’s telling us that fairy tales give us a lifeline for returning to our humanity.
López: Completely. The world is a scary place in every sense. We know from a very young age that we’re going to die. We’re always trying to reconcile with that fact. Fairy tales are a tool to put the world in order in our minds. The chaos is going to still reign, for sure. But it’s a way to make sense of the forces and understand the things that are essential to who we are, and the hardships we have to go through before we succeed, or the forces of evil lurking in the corners.
So yes, it’s Estrella telling the story of Shine, but it’s also in a way her story in the end. We discover that when she says we have to remember that we are princes and warriors, she’s also talking about herself. She’s talking about all of us.
Paste: The other thing the movie seems to be getting at is that, yes, fairytales can bring us back to humanity, but it’s an active process. You can’t just expect it to happen. It’s something you have to accept and engage with yourself.
López: Completely. And this call goes beyond fairy tales into mythology, into religion and lore. The hero has to complete a journey. The hero has to go through tasks and tests to come out the other side changed, and having returned the world to order.
Paste: This journey ends tragically for some.
López: We tried not to shy from wherever the story needed to go, to illustrate, on one side what’s actually going on in Mexico and the reasons that are pushing children to cross the border, to explain why they would even risk crossing the border and ending up in a cage, which is happening right now. I wanted to illustrate the risks that they face in their everyday life.
On the other hand, the type of fairy tale that I’m attracted to is the one that doesn’t shy from the dark side. So many times the heroes of the fairy tale don’t make it to the end, as we know in the real version of The Little Mermaid. Many times, these stories have pretty grim endings.
Paste: I thought a lot about what the movie has to say regarding cartel violence and ghost towns, and about what I think people are going to see in the movie in regard to what’s happening at the border right now. Did you think about making the movie more explicit in terms of the crossing element? It feels to me that the movie is more focused on the Mexico side and the impetus for crossing than crossing itself.
López: Yeah, the movie’s not about crossings. It’s about the situation that is happening on the other side, which constitutes the reasons for crossing. So, in a very classic way, it would be a prequel. [laughs].
When I wrote and made the movie, we still didn’t have this horrendous situation with refugees and immigrants in containment units, honestly, or certainly not as horrendous as it is now. The sad part of this is that in the time between me making the movie and its opening, the situation has only gotten worse. The hero’s journey, even if they escape now, means ending up in cages and not being treated like heroes that have survived this. Sadly, the movie is more pertinent now than what it was two years ago.
Paste: Especially because it gives us an example of a movie that does treat these children as heroes. When we see them here, when we see these children in the media, they’re crying, they’re in spiritual, emotional agony and they’re just victims! Do you feel like it’s important for this movie to show that heroic element as well?
López: Completely. I mean, the simple fact that they were on a journey across the border through the perils and survived … they’re warriors in a way that we are not, you and I. Now the fact that they’re crying, and destroyed, is totally understandable. I think that realizing heroes feel and hurt doesn’t mean they have not achieved an incredible feat of survival. It’s just so heartbreaking that they’ve gone through so much to then find this on the other side.
Paste: In that way, does Tigers Are Not Afraid give a bit of hope? Again, we can complete that hero’s journey, even if it ends on a grim note.There’s a redemptive moment in that journey that I think lends a little optimism, for better or for worse.
López: No, completely. As you said, a character dies to be able to complete the journey. [The character] still wins, but it’s a tough win, of course. In the real world, there are a lot of other horrendous criminals, but the particular group of monsters chasing these children are gone. So you have both endings: The grim one because it’s real and it’s happening, and because it’s important to remember that not everything is fixed. And then the luminous one walking towards the light and power.