By JILLIAN KRISTINA
Strength is a varied concept. There is aggressive strength – hostile strength. Conversely, there is inner strength, the will that we find within ourselves when faced with adversity or worse, insurmountable obstacles that appear as mountains in our path. What’s interesting, though, is that when we realize these mountains are teetering on the weakest of foundations – fear, violence, cruelty, domination – we find the mountains within ourselves are much more fortified and fierce than we’d ever imagined. Because fear makes us small by clouding our memories like fog obscuring these ancient towering monoliths. By making us forget who we are.
“We forget that we are princes, warriors, tigers … when the things from outside come to get us.”
In 2017, Issa Lopez’s horrifically heartbreaking macabre fairy tale, TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID, unleashed an emotional juggernaut of real-life terror spliced with whimsical fantasy at Fantastic Fest, a fateful screening that would catapult a tale that needed to be told to screens and televisions worldwide. While not a traditional horror film, this story takes the viewer on a harrowing journey through the very real horrors of the Mexican cartels and subsequent drug wars that ravage the country and its people – particularly women and children.
The opening credits lay out the staggering numbers of casualties: 160,000 since 2006, and 53,000 missing. These staggering numbers leave out a critical statistic – the number of orphans left behind.
“Poor tiger. He had a home. A mom. In the jungle. Now he’s all alone. He’s scared.”
With that, we transition from statistics to an elementary school classroom, where the teacher is asking the children what some characters from fairy tales are:
“Fairies! Princes! Wishes! Foxes! Witches! Ghosts! Castles! And tigers!”
She then tasks them with writing their own fairy tales. Estrella (Paola Laura) makes quick work of hers. She tells the tale of a prince who wanted to be a tiger. She tells of the tiger’s strength, of the natural weapons at his disposal – fangs for breaking bones. For these reasons, she explains, tigers are not afraid. But the children’s fairy tales are soon destroyed as bullets explode beyond the walls of their school. As the students hit the floor, Estrella’s teacher crawls over to her, handing her three pieces of chalk – wishes, just like in fairy tales. However, the tale that is about to unfold is a dynamic fairy tale, perhaps more akin to the original tales, those that bore lessons through the horrific events that befall the main characters. Those that carried warnings. Those who saw monsters as real nightmares come to life and the strength that the protagonists need to defeat them.
And harsh truths, like wishes rarely come without a cost.
Some say a wish is hope. But what is hope? When Estrella arrives home to an empty apartment after school is canceled indefinitely, she calls out to her mother, only to hear silence. Still, there’s something in the place of that silence – a line of blood that has followed her home. On her way home from school, Estrella passes by a casualty from the gunfire, covered by a blanket and sealed off by caution tape.
The bloodline – leaving one vessel to track another. The blood follows Estrella home, making its way across the tiled floor, up the walls, marking divides between images in pictures and finally staining a dress hanging from a clothesline. It’s one of her mother’s dresses. It’s an omen of death, although Estrella doesn’t know it yet. There’s so much Estrella doesn’t know yet, but she will because this is just the beginning, and the blood has much to tell her.
“I’m a princess?”
“No, you are a warrior.”
Can a princess not be a warrior? Can strength not be gentle, sweet, even? Fairy tales are liminal stories containing liminal characters from myriad realms and realities, so why can’t we, too, be liminal ourselves? Neither here nor there, embodying impossible dualities? In a world where humanity increasingly makes less sense, how can we embrace and reconcile such extremes in ourselves? This is where the power of archetypes comes into play. This is where the power and medicine of the eighth card in the major arcana of the tarot presents itself, through The Strength card.
Within this image, we see both a calmly composed woman and a roaring lion. There is no fear here. The woman and the lion coexist together, denoting a balance between our primal wildness and rage and our inner stillness and self-assuredness. Both are valued, and both balance each other. This is a card of harmony through duality, of acceptance and knowing exactly what we’re capable of, and the ability to wield it all together – a gentle, yet powerful force of nature. It’s also knowing that we’ve been here before, to these spaces that challenge and provoke us, and that we’ve overcome them. Conquered them, even, becoming stronger and more self-assured with each predator and obstacle bested. Our cultivated prowess feeds our confidence, proving to ourselves, time and time again, that we are more than capable of facing down the beast. Or in Estrella’s case, facing down death.
Outside, black ribbons rustle in the wind, a constant reminder of those who are missing. Those who are lost. When Estrella, standing alone in her apartment, makes her first wish upon the first piece of chalk, she opens a channel for those who have been taken to be seen. To be heard.
“I wish my mom would come back.”
And she does, but not in a form that Estrella wants or understands. Not just yet. But this is when the first messages are delivered from the mouths of phantoms, blackened fingers grasping from the shadows to lead an orphan into the horrors of the truth that lie beyond the steady stream of blood. A disembodied voice follows the blood, directing it. The blood is life because it is the conduit through which death finds a voice.
Death has certainly come to call, and Estrella and her friends must answer.
“Another dead one. Because of him. Here we are…all of us. Bring him to us.”
Blood is the conductor of communication. It is tied to the dead, to the spirit realm. The ancestral realm. The blood is liminal, as are the dead. This space – this warzone – is liminal, ever-shifting, morphing from a second of peace to a terrifying sprint. Finding herself completely on her own and wanting desperately to escape the specter that now roams the halls she and her mother once shared, she sets out to join a collective of children she’s noticed living in a ramshackle shelter on the rooftops next to her building. However, her acceptance into this group of all boys won’t come easy because their leader, El Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez), doesn’t like the addition of a girl to his tribe. Girls are bad luck, he says. So Estrella offers a miracle. She can make their main adversary, Caco (Ianis Guerrero), go away. Disappear. Curiosity and desperation piqued, El Shine takes her up on that offer, handing her the pistol that he stole from Caco. And she delivers, in a way, thanks to her second wish.
“I wish I didn’t have to kill him.”
Caco is already dead when Estrella arrives on the scene. The snake emblazoned on the grip of Caco’s stolen pistol, which Estrella holds, comes to life, slithering down her leg and out of her pants.
“How did you do it?”
“I made a wish.”
El Shine’s wish would have been that he killed Caco, and with good reason. Caco took his mother just after burning El Shine’s house to the ground. Now, he protects his band of brothers, and Estrella, with fierce commitment, dedication and loyalty. Together, they’re able to quell the constant fear simmering just beneath every heartbeat, every breath. They’re able to dance, to play, to laugh in the moments between the chaos – between the heartache. These moments of shared strength feed El Shine’s inner fire, a fire he carries with him, within and without. Because he has a souvenir of that tragic, pivotal night when he lost everything – the very lighter that started the fire. He holds it, igniting it and extinguishing it, a seemingly morbid beacon in the darkness. El Shine exudes this fire, this light, through his anger and passion and sheer will to defeat those who seek to defeat him. In this way, El Shine embodies the core essences of the zodiac sign Leo in which the moon came into its fullness on January 25th. Leo sees the light at the end of the tunnel. They are the light at the end of the tunnel, or in this case, the purifying inferno at the end of the hero’s nightmare.
“He’s been through all the bad stuff. And now he’s free to go anywhere he wants. He’s the king of this fucked up kingdom. Tigers are not afraid.”
Now, the group must embark on their most challenging and frightening encounter together. They must face El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), the politician who is actually the leader of Los Huascas. When El Shine stole Caco’s gun, he also stole something else – his phone. On that phone is damning footage of El Chino torturing and killing a woman. And El Chino will stop at nothing to get it back. So, the children arrange a meeting with El Chino to deliver the phone, but what he doesn’t know is that El Shine swapped Caco’s signature dragon phone case with another he had stolen. The footage of El Chino and the woman means something so much more than just damning evidence; It is a devastating answer for Estrella, and El Shine wants to deliver that to her.
Life is joy and horror, crippling gratitude and paralyzing rage and complexities and dualities we may never marry. It’s everything – all at once. To be here is such an immense gift and a tragic nightmare that we may beg to wake from. El Shine once asked Estrella to use one of her wishes to make the burn scars on his face go away. Initially, she says no, but at this moment, a moment out of time and space, a moment where hearts and hopes are shattered to disrepair, Estrella makes that wish, marking his scar with the last piece of chalk, the last wish, she has left.
“I wish that your scar disappears.”
And just like that, El Shine’s scar does disappear but not the way Estrella intended. As with all of her wishes, nothing manifests as intended. And now, the blood leads her away from danger, towards safety. Now, the blood leads Estrella to the dead and to the lighter El Shine covets. She plummets into a pit of rot, a pit of stench – the unmistakable stench of death. There, for a brief moment, she finds her mother’s corpse, reanimating to touch Estrella’s face as the bracelet of birds that the young girl once coveted so much flies from her mother’s wrist to hers.
Estrella and her friends have answered the call of Death, and now Death is doing its part. As Estrella exits the pit, El Chino enters to find the hands and mouths of those he slaughtered ready and eager for him to join them. As she walks away, she sees her friend again as he is now, maybe as he’s always been. She hands El Shine his lighter, and they say their last goodbye. Now, it’s El Shine’s time to end the cycle of violence and death and heartache and despair. Now, it’s El Shine’s time to light one more fire. To ignite the flames that will bring justice to them all.
The kings and queens of the jungle might not be afraid, but they see with different eyes. Their senses are heightened, including their intuition. They see beyond the mundane; They notice the slightest, most imperceivable details. Perhaps being touched by such constant tragedy puts them in touch with another plane, another realm. These intense brushes with terror tear rifts in their psyches that allow them to see, to perceive that which was shrouded. That which was hidden. That which can only be seen by those who have walked through the flames and have not just survived but who have died a million fiery deaths and have risen, time and time again.
“Tigers are not afraid. They went through all the bad stuff. And came out the other side. They are kings of this kingdom of broken things…”
“Because we have to remember we are princes. We are warriors. And tigers. And tigers are not afraid.”