One moonless inky night this week, 4,000 Haitians gathered along their town's waterfront, sat down and spent the next three hours lost in a large window of light.
A giant outdoor movie screen flickered before them, transporting them into other people's lives and to faraway places they'd never otherwise see.
Haiti might be in its darkest, most anarchic hour, with murderous gangs besieging its capital and its economy in shreds, but in this peaceful seaside city, a cultural awakening is under way. Every day this week, films from Haiti and the world have been screened around the city as part of a wildly ambitious international film festival that has already achieved its founders' most basic aim: to infuse a stricken people with hope.
The Jacmel International Film Festival, which began July 9 and ends today, was different from most festivals of its kind. Films were shown three times daily in makeshift theaters, their crumbling walls patched with plywood, and at nighttime on a 18-by-25-foot screen on the city's wharf. Every screening was free, and without exception, packed by locals.
The incongruity between this movie festival in Jacmel and the horrors two hours north in Port-au-Prince, where a Haitian journalist's mutilated body was found Thursday, was lost on no one.
''There's always a looming sense of disaster from Port-au-Prince, and at some points, some members of our team were questioning whether we should do this,'' said David Belle, 33, one of the festival's founders. ``But I felt it was more important than ever.''
Belle, an American filmmaker who was romanced by Haiti 13 years ago, dreamed up the idea of hosting a festival here with a Jacmel native, Patrick Boucard, 49, in 2003.
Boucard is from a prominent Jacmel family that still owns some of the largest buildings in town. After hopscotching around the United States in his youth, Boucard returned home with his wife, Kate, two years ago to open an arts center by the sea.
''I love this area, and I love the people, and I want to expand the horizons of Haitians,'' Boucard said. ``In a selfish way, I'm preserving my environment.''
If Port-au-Prince, with its kidnappings and bloodthirstiness, is Haiti at its most hellish, Jacmel is its oasis. The city is impoverished but beautiful in its near ruin, lined with grand, decrepit French colonial buildings that give it the feel of a lost New Orleans. Whenever Port-au-Prince descended into chaos, as it has again now, Jacmel kept its peace, largely because its people closely watch newcomers and manage to keep any probable troublemakers out.
Boucard's art center offers training to self-taught artists, but Boucard and Belle yearned to bring the world to Jacmel. Fifty percent of Haitians are illiterate; few can afford televisions, and even fewer can afford the luxury of a movie. Anyway, few theaters are operating.
For the first film festival, held in July 2004, Boucard and Belle scraped together $120,000 and corralled 85 Haitian documentaries, shorts and feature films. They convinced American companies to rent them equipment and rigged up a screen at the town's crossroads.
Half the town showed up for opening night, but the next day, the festival's smaller venues were curiously vacant. After some sleuthing, Belle discovered locals couldn't fathom entering a private venue without paying. ''They didn't know what a film festival was,'' Belle said. So he visited key people in each neighborhood to invite one and all. From then on, the screenings overflowed, and after the festival ended, locals dogged Belle and Boucard, asking when the festival was coming back.
It nearly didn't. As Port-au-Prince's violence spun out of control, Belle and Boucard worried about visitors' safety and feared that the thousands of locals gathered for the nightly film would provide an easy target should the capital's gang warfare bleed out. But Jacmel had opened its tiny airport, which meant outsiders could avoid the often perilous road from Port-au-Prince to town. In April, as Haiti's prospects plummeted, the pair decided the festival was a go.
Help poured in. After some persuading, such major studios as HBO, Dreamworks and Lions Gate lent the festival major releases -- among them Hotel Rwanda and The Motorcycle Diaries -- for free. Friends threw fundraisers and showed up in Jacmel to work without pay. A young local theater group dubbed a dozen movies in Creole, recorded in a hastily erected sound room. Fat donations came from the French and Spanish embassies, Haiti's Ministry of Culture and Crowing Rooster Arts, which Belle runs with filmmaker Katharine Kean, who also owns Tap Tap Restaurant in South Beach.
In the end, the festival offered 100 films from 30 countries and, at least in the daytime, couldn't match local demand.
''We cannot travel; we don't have the passports or money or visas to get to those places,'' said Fenton Stevenson, 27, a festivalgoer from Jacmel. ``This way, these places come to us.''
Directors from the Caribbean, South Africa and New York flew in to host free filmmaking and acting workshops that immediately ran out of space. Others, though, stayed away, fearing for their safety. By late this week, security guards were installed at the smaller daytime venues, because too many people were trying to shoehorn themselves in. Near bedlam ensued outside a jammed screening of Sometimes in April, a film about Rwanda by the Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck.
''This is very new for Haiti, and I am surprised they had the guts to do it,'' said Peck, who hosted a filmmaking workshop. ``It's like a giant public school. It's another kind of food.''
But with every advance comes risk. One of co-founder Belle's greatest fears is that after bringing the world to Jacmel and teaching its youth to make films and project their realities on screen, people here will feel even more trapped and limited by their country's deepening failures.
Yet for one young Haitian at least, the festival offered sorely needed, if temporary, liberation: It lifted him out of the beleaguered Haiti of now into the Haiti that could be.
''There are young people here who are full of hope, and every day, at every moment of their lives, they think about what's to come for Haiti,'' said Jean Auguste, 22, a student who drank in the festival workshops.
''This helps to forget their daily life problems and helps them imagine what they can do tomorrow, for their families and their country,'' Auguste said.