When asked about the inspiration for Tigers Are Not Afraid, a movie that follows a group of orphaned children running from drug cartel thugs, director Issa López says some stories come to her in "full-fledged" form, and some arrive as "little anecdotes."
Tigers Are Not Afraid was the latter.
"It could be something you read in the paper and you put it in a secret box in your brain," she says via phone. The movie screens at 8:40 p.m. on Thursday and at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday at the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. "It sits with you. That's the way it happened with Tigers. I heard someone casually mention the huge problem of abandoned children because of drug violence in Mexico. There's no numbers because the parents are gone and can't report on them. It is a war and like in every war, children are affected by it."
She realized there was a story she needed to tell about the children who are left alone and, in a way, become the lords of the ghost towns. She also drew upon a short story she wrote when she was 16.
Framed as if it were a Peter Pan-like fairytale about Wendy, Peter Pan, the Lost Boys and Captain Hook, the film comes off as something truly magical. Guillermo del Toro's dark fantasies make for a good point of reference.
"It's completely part of [the magical realism tradition], but it happened organically," says López. "When you go into fantasy as our fairy tale demanded, and you're Latin American, it's one and the same. We're never apart from our dead. They walk in peace with us. That's very much at the center of magical realism, and so it was part of our story."
Critics have called the movie a horror film, but it never becomes too grotesque even though it has moments of intense violence.
"For me, it was important that everything you see is from the point of view of the kids," López says. "You never know what happens to the people that these criminals take. They don't know. What's in the imagination of the kids can be milder or much more horrible than what's going on in real life."
The film has played the festival circuit for a couple of years now, and López says the response has been extremely favorable. As an aside, she mentions it's this year's highest-rated horror film on Rotten Tomatoes.
"It's been an absolute beautiful joy to see that the movie connects even though it speaks about something very specific, which is the current situation in some Mexican cities," she says. "But audiences around the world — and when I say around the world, I mean around the world — have responded. It touches fibers. It's not just a ghost story. It connects, and I think that happened because it's coming from a place of complete honesty. I was not selling product. I was telling a story that I could not stop myself from telling, and that's the movie."