LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - After the devastating earthquake rocked Haiti earlier this year, food and medical aid poured into the island country, but in the months that followed a pair of Hollywood actresses and their friends had another idea. They wanted to build a movie theater.
It may seem like a far-fetched notion, but since it opened in September, the Sun City Picture House has become a place that generates smiles on the faces of children and adults. It also has been used as a community center and school, and it helped spawned two similar buildings in different camps.
Maria Bello, who starred Adam Sandler comedy “Grown Ups,” and “Tron” actress Olivia Wilde, have documented the efforts of the group of people that brought the theater to life in a new, short documentary they expect to screen at festivals throughout the upcoming year.
“The thing that’s needed most in Haiti right now, besides the immediate relief efforts, is joy. And that’s what this movie is about,” Bello told Reuters.
The movie, “Sun City Picture House,” focuses on Haitian aid worker Raphael Louigene — whose dream was to build a movie theater — and the two American aid workers who helped him realize that dream by constructing it in just four days: Bryn Mooser from Artists for Peace and Justice, and Dave Darg, who works for Operation Blessing.
Darg directed the documentary. Mooser produced, and they hired a student from Haiti’s only film school, Cine Institute, to shoot it.
Bello, 43, and Wilde, 26, both advisory board members of Artists for Peace and Justice, had volunteered in Haiti before January’s earthquake, and even then, theaters were in short supply. Wilde remembers one night standing with “40 or so Haitians as we projected ‘Home Alone’ onto a sheet slung over a wall, creating an impromptu late-night outdoor theater smack in the middle of the slums known as Cite Soleil, or Sun City.”
Watching their faces in the light from a projector was an important moment for Wilde. “That’s when I understood the need for an Artist for Peace and Justice Film Project,” she said.
The Sun City theater project came to fruition when, during their earthquake relief work, Louigene shared his dream of building a theater, and Darg and Mooser said they would help.
After the quake, the pair were working full-time in Haiti on standard relief efforts, building homes and schools and bringing in medical, water, clothing and other supplies to what became known as “tent cities.”
Bello and Wilde were making regular trips to pitch in, and they all realized it was time to take their efforts beyond the basics to a different level.
“The next logical step was rebuilding some of the society and some of the culture,” said Mooser. “It became apparent right away that it was important to give Haitian kids something to do — especially as we saw increasing violence, rape and all the alcohol and drug use going on. These tent cities are pitch black at night and can become dangerous places.”
Artists for Peace and Justice paid for the construction and villagers helped with the building.
On the fourth day, the theater’s grand opening, Bello provided the inaugural movie, “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,” the 2008 film in which she starred.
“We had 200 kids that night with little bags of popcorn and juice,” Bello recalled. “Their parents stood in the back, watching them have some joy for the first time.”
In the months since it opened, the Sun City Picture House has impacted the 5000-plus community beyond just showing films, Darg said. “It’s also become a community center for the whole camp. They use it for school and meetings. They’ve taken ownership of it and keep it looking beautiful and clean.”
Wilde puts it this way: “The Sun City Picture House has created a space for stories, rather than fear and hunger.”
Darg and Mooser have built two similar structures in other communities, and they are now planning to build more.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte