Written and directed by Issa López
Starring Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López and Hanssel Casillas
Run time: 1 hour and 23 minutes
by Samuel Antezana
A child in an abandoned apartment complex dances under an umbrella soaked by water leaking through a hole in a cracked ceiling. Children daydream about a zoo as they stare at fish moving through the cloudy water within indents of a dirty floor. These are some of the beautifully realized moments of youth that writer/director Issa López begs us to cherish amidst cartel violence occurring in the ghostly cityscape of a poverty-ridden Mexican city in Tigers Are Not Afraid.
From the get-go, the film prepares audiences for the seriousness of its backdrop by using statistics concerning the all too real horrors caused by the drug cartels that run rampant throughout areas of Mexico:
“Since the beginning of the drug war in 2006, 160,000 have been killed and 53,000 have disappeared in Mexico. Entire areas of some cities are turning into ghost towns. There are no numbers for the children [that] the dead, and the missing have left behind.”
As cartel violence boils within the streets of the city, we follow Estrella (Paola Lara), an elementary-age girl who discovers that her mother is missing when she gets home from a tragic, gunshot-riddled day at school. As the night approaches, she receives a visitation from her mother’s ghostly visage, confirming what ill-fate she might have befallen at the hands of the local cartel, Las Huascas. The following day, Estrella bumps into a young street dweller named El Shine (Juan Ramón López) as he is stealing some things from her house. She follows him to his little gang’s hideout and he begrudgingly accepts her into their makeshift home. Things, however, do not peacefully last, as Shine’s new cell phone belongs to a cartel member who wants it back, no matter what. This sends the kids on a run through cartel-infested streets to discover what is so special about the phone, while Estrella struggles to understand why the ghost of her mother keeps trying desperately to visit her.
Upon viewing TANA, I was immediately hit with images of Guillermo del Toro’s films, particularly of his young characters, such as Ofelia (Pan’s Labyrinth) and Carlos (The Devil’s Backbone), who have to endure hardships created by the crumbling world of violence around them, similar to Estrella and Shine. TANA also recalls such American films such as Stand by Me and The Goonies, because of their adventure qualities, but also down to those films’ child-created mottos of honor and bravery. In The Goonies , it’s “Goonies never say die,” in TANA it’s “tigers are not afraid”
The relationships of the children in TANA are front and center throughout each test they find themselves in, they’re forced to grow up fast and to grow up together. I interviewed López and she revealed that the children’s relationships were so authentically realized because they were never really given details as to the scene they were in. “What I did in order to get the performances, rather than rehearse the scenes, I wanted them to understand the situation, the world we were creating, what was out there and I wanted them to absolutely create the emotions and relationships between them,” says López. “We worked with them for a month, but we didn’t go through the scenes.”
Not only did I get to see genuine emotions and relationships between these kids playing out on screen, but there were several scenes where it started to feel like I was a part of their little troupe, one of López’s hopes for the audience. “I wanted the camera to be the sixth one, there’s five of them...I wanted all the audience to be the sixth,” says Lopez about her camera’s perspective. “So the camera is restless and it’s jumpy and it’s often hiding and it’s always shooting from a low angle, so we are right there, we’re the sixth kid in the gang.” In addition to dynamic, and even life-like camera movements, López’s lighting and framing of scenes maintains a restrained and natural quality, giving the film’s already dark subject matter a more grounded effect. This dark aesthetic remains when more fantastical moments occur, whether it be a thin trail of blood following Estrella or a talking stuffed animal toy, further cementing the fantasy elements within a realistic context.
Estrella and Shine’s journey may include talking stuffed toys and ghostly visions of the dead, but it’s ultimately a film about the violence that disrupts places in Mexico where neither the government officials nor the law can do much for the people living there, and how often the memories of the casualties of violence are forgotten in the streets of ghost towns in-the-making. TANA is an exemplary piece of genre filmmaking that is an ode to the wonders of childhood and friendship that thrive, even in the darkest corners of the world.
López briefly mentioned that her next project will be a supernatural western with werewolves. It is being produced by her fellow countryman, Guillermo Del Toro, and López is set to direct. They are both currently working on polishing up her script to begin filming in the near future.