LO HERMIDA, Chile – Inside the community center for this slum where children shiver in the winter chill, dozens of kids are dreaming of flying away. Their pilot is 9-year-old Benjamin Ortega, who tips his hat inside their cardboard plane and calls for takeoff while an old 16-mm projector rolls and clicks, projecting Walt Disney's 1928 classic film "Plane Crazy" on a white sheet.
As the first black-and-white images of Mickey Mouse pop up, they roar with laughter. The 83-year-old woman responsible for their joy smiles faintly, paying no attention to the movie. She's more interested in these starry-eyed kids, who have never walked into a cinema.
Her name is Alicia Vega, a no-nonsense filmmaker who has seen that look during 27 years of workshops. In slum after slum, all across Chile, she has helped thousands of poor children soar by teaching them about the magic of movies.
Film, she says, has a uniquely transformative power.
"My intention was never for them to become filmmakers, but for them to become better human beings, to discover themselves," says Vega, who recently documented her life's work in a book, "Film Workshop for Children," so others might be inspired to follow her lead.
"Movies help children escape poverty because it lifts their self-esteem. They learn values, it expands their culture. It's universal: Kids are kids anywhere and they learn a lot through images," she says.
In her four-month workshops, children start by making devices that preceded the first projected moving images, like the Zoetrope — a cylinder with vertical slits surrounding a band of pictures that come alive when spun. The children often take the toys back home and teach their parents that the name comes from the Greek words "zoe" for alive and "trope" for turn.
"The Zoetrope impressed me most, because I never imagined that an inanimate image could have movement. It was shocking," recalls Leonardo Veliz, 38, who used to sell shoelaces in the streets when he attended Vega's workshop in 1987 at age 13. He now works as an electrical technician.
"I was surprised to see how movies were made, or to find out that the first ones were silent. The classes awakened my curiosity," Veliz says. "We learned that images are not really what they seem at first, and this has helped me at work. I'll be repairing computers for hours, and I also have to find a way to see things in a different way."
Studying cinema history, the kids sneeze together after watching Vega's 16-mm copy of the earliest surviving motion picture, the 1894 "Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze." Children pencil handlebar moustaches on their faces and dress in 19th century clothes to watch images of a train arriving at a station, famously shown to a shocked public by the Lumiere Brothers in Paris. Of the mustachioed brothers, sometimes they ask: "Which one is Louis and which one Auguste?"
On other days, they wear top hats and giggle at the slapstick comedy of Laurel and Hardy or Charlie Chaplin's first silent films. They discover shots and angles behind a real camera, construct a box office and pay for their classroom cinema using fake bills. And they always enjoy snacks during screenings.
"I've never been to the movie theater but I want to learn what a movie is and how it's made. I like this a lot," says Ortega, the 9-year-old "pilot" of the cardboard plane.
Kids also watch the moving stick figures of the century-old Fantasmagorie, the world's first cartoon. Eventually, frame by frame, they will draw their own moving images — of dinosaurs, soccer players, ships and trains — to make their own movie. They also grasp the difference between film and documentary or real life.
"They're used to not being listened to at home, hardly having an opinion at all," Vega says. "So when they come back home and tell their parents what happened in class they become the protagonists. It helps them find grounding in who they are and find a space in life, and that's very valuable."
Flashback to 1973, when Chile was living through the darkest moment of its recent history. Vega's adult classes at the university were cut after Marxist President Salvador Allende was ousted by Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Helicopters hovered over Santiago's slums like Lo Hermida in the municipality of Penalolen, keeping children up at night while the military searched for leftist dissidents among their parents.
Sometimes soldiers broke into the porous plywood homes and dragged people out for questioning and torture. Many never returned, joining the more than 3,000 who disappeared after being seized by the dictatorship. Vega worried that their children, already enduring poverty and hunger, would also lose their innocence.
She spent the early years of the dictatorship developing a film curriculum for kids in Roman Catholic schools, but eventually she decided to go straight to the slums. In her first workshop, seen in the 1987 documentary "100 Children Waiting for a Train," she asks children to create their own documentary. They reach for red markers and draw images of protesters being shot by police.
Vega is small-framed and grandmotherly, but no pushover. Her toughest decisions come when she's had to dismiss children from the workshop for stealing the snacks. Her assistants sometime ask her to reconsider, but she won't give in. "If you were to forgive every child we couldn't continue with the class," Vega says in her book.
She's not the hugging type: In the film, she explains that she can't get too close emotionally to kids whose lives are already full of pain. It's hardest when she sees youngsters who have been abandoned or sexually abused, beaten or just hungry.
"For her to go inside this community at this hostile time was amazing," says Veliz of the dictatorship years. "We thought the world was just that and that we had to hate anyone who thought differently, but when the workshop arrived it changed our way of thinking."
Throughout the years, Vega has scrounged up funding from the Education Ministry, the U.S. and Scandinavian embassies, churches, French humanitarian groups and Chilean artists. But every year, she still struggles to get the $3,000 she needs for materials, adult supervisors and snacks.
"I keep on doing it because I see in children's faces that every year, with every experience, they achieve goals that they never dreamed of," Vega says. "Parents tell us that they focus and do better at school, and more importantly, they're happier."
And thanks to Vega, they have passed on some movie magic to their own children.
"I recently bought a film projector just like in the workshop, and I buy popcorn and watch movies with Zara, my 4-year-old daughter," Veliz says.
"Aunt Alicia would teach that movies have a beginning and an end, and in great way, that's how life is. But what happens in that movie of life depends on us," he adds. "In order to do that, you have to help children dream. Alicia does that and her legacy is huge. It's so many generations of us, and the movie keeps rolling."
Luis Andres Henao on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao