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Movie night in Venezuela barrio offers respite from troubles

At nightfall in one corner of Venezuela's largest and most notorious barrio, all eyes turned to the glow of a temporary movie screen set up on a hillside terrace atop stacked, red cinder block homes.

Families crawled up cramped stairwells, squeezing together on blankets and plastic chairs spread on their flat rooftops. Some leaned out of their kitchen windows, peering through tangled power lines, while others clustered at the foot of long stairways — anyplace to catch a view.

For a short time Monday, hundreds of families in the neighborhood of Petare had a front row seat for a showing of Disney’s “Aladdin,” allowing residents to escape the stress of the coronavirus quarantine and political wrangling that darkened their TV signals among Venezuela's deepening troubles.

People watch the film Aladdin projected on a screen set up on the roof of a home in the Petare neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, late Monday, June 1, 2020. A neighborhood group called The Download Zone set up the movie as a free entertainment option for families cooped up since mid-March under the COVID-19 quarantine. (AP PhotoAriana Cubillos)

“We’re going to make some popcorn,” resident Adriana Carrillo said through the bars on her front door as her 5-year-old daughter, Aranza Sofía Guerrero, squirmed next to her. “It’s a great distraction, especially for the children.”

The movie projected a bright spot amid the shadow the pandemic has cast around the world at a time when Venezuelans were already struggling under years of political and social crisis. U.S. sanctions bent on forcing President Nicolás Maduro from power recently forced DirecTV to cut its satellite signal, leaving most families in barrios like Petare with no way to watch movies.

The coronavirus has not hit Venezuela as hard as neighboring Brazil, Peru and Ecuador. So far, officials report just over 1,600 illnesses and 17 deaths, but some fear it could easily overwhelm Venezuela's hospitals.

The film Aladdin is projected on a screen set up on the roof of a home, center right, in the Petare neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, late Monday, June 1, 2020. A neighborhood group called The Download Zone set up the movie as a free entertainment option for families cooped up since mid-March under the COVID-19 quarantine. (AP PhotoAriana Cubillos)

A group of neighbors who lead the movie night project called The Official Download Zone work on donations from local charities to set up the screen, a projector and speakers on the rooftop terrace, providing low-budget entertainment for families cooped up since mid-March.

The group has been showing movies in the streets for about seven years, among its projects designed to help build a sense of community among Petare's poor and working class neighborhoods, which have a reputation for violence.

Jimmy Pérez, one of the organizers, said the quarantine and lack of satellite TV made their movie night even more important to residents. They're taking advantage of families' rooftop terraces, which already hold an important place in Venezuelan culture, he said.

Residents sit on their roof to watch the film Aladdin projected on a screen set up on the roof of a neighbor's home in the Petare neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, late Monday, June 1, 2020. A neighborhood group called The Download Zone set up the movie as a free entertainment option for families cooped up since mid-March under the COVID-19 quarantine. (AP PhotoAriana Cubillos)

"It's on our terraces that we dream and gather together," Pérez said. “It's where we bid farewell to each year, set off fireworks at Carnival and fly kites.”

The group, which pushes no political agenda in a deeply divided Venezuela, picks family movies that bring hope-filled messages as they move among neighborhoods, with one planned for each night this week.

They also believe the project will create a narrative for Petare that runs contrary to one of unbridled violence that too many people see. They highlight residents born and raised there who went on to become Major League Baseball players, beauty queens and professionals.

The film Aladdin is projected on a screen set up on the roof of a home in the Petare neighborhood, where residents from that home and nearby homes sit on the roof in Caracas, Venezuela, late Monday, June 1, 2020. A neighborhood group called The Download Zone set up the movie as a free entertainment option for families cooped up since mid-March under the COVID-19 quarantine. (AP PhotoAriana Cubillos)

Still, many residents watching “Aladdin” said they remain shaken by a bloody turf war among gangs last month in a nearby part of Petare. The sound of heavy gunfire lasted through several nights. One neighbor described seeing a police helicopter hover outside her front door, making her run for cover.

On Monday, however, the only sound echoing throughout this part of Petare was the Disney soundtrack to “Aladdin,” bouncing through the canyon of hillside homes. Its songs and plot tell the story of an Arabian street urchin who wins a princess's heart despite the obstacles a villain throws his way.

Santiago Vega, 9, said he would normally be playing on his tablet at this time of night, whiling away the hours. Rather, he squeezed in between his dad and uncle to watch the movie, grateful for something different for at least one night.

People watch the movie Aladdin projected across the street on the roof of a home, left, in the Petare neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, late Monday, June 1, 2020. A neighborhood group called The Download Zone set up the movie as a free entertainment option for families cooped up since mid-March under the COVID-19 quarantine. (AP PhotoAriana Cubillos)

“I want to be able to see my grandmother, my cousins,” he said, wondering if he'll be able to properly celebrate his birthday coming up on July 4. “But I can't, because of all this.”

Follow Scott Smith on Twitter: @ScottSmithAP

People watch the movie Aladdin projected on a screen set up on the roof of a home, center right, in the Petare neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, late Monday, June 1, 2020. A neighborhood group called The Download Zone set up the movie as a free entertainment option for families cooped up since mid-March under the COVID-19 quarantine. (AP PhotoAriana Cubillos)