Cinema: Talking Movies – Chinese cinema offers films to blind audiences
Dozens of blind moviegoers attend the Saturday screenings organized by the Xin Mu Theater.
Picture: Jade Gao / AFP
EVery Saturday, Zhang Xinsheng travels two hours for a movie date with friends, navigating Beijing’s confusing subway with his white cane and a talking map that shouts directions on his cell phone.
Zhang lost his eyesight in his early twenties due to a degenerative disease, but since going blind he has discovered a love for cinema at the Talking Film Club, where volunteers give vivid stories to an auditorium of blind or visually impaired spectators.
“After listening to a movie for the first time in 2014, I felt like a (new) world had opened up for me,” he said.
“I felt that I could understand the film despite my blindness. There were clear images forming in my mind … as (the narrator) described the scenes … of laughter, of crying.”
Now 51 years old, he makes the weekly pilgrimage to a theater in Qianmen, in the heart of old Beijing, without fail.
Dozens of blind moviegoers attend Saturday screenings hosted by the Xin Mu Theater, a small group of volunteers who pioneered films to blind audiences in China.
Their method is surprisingly low-tech. A narrator describes what is happening on screen, including facial expressions, unspoken gestures, setting, and costumes.
They relay visual cues that would otherwise be missed, such as a sudden change of scenery from falling leaves to snow that reflects the passage of time.
Last month, the group screened “A Street Cat Named Bob,” the story of a red-haired feline who helps a homeless man in London quit drugs and become a bestselling author.
Narrator Wang Weili described what is happening on screen:
“There is snow falling on London, a city in England. It’s a bit like Beijing but the buildings are not that high,” he said between the dialogues dubbed in Chinese.
“A man with binoculars – two long round cylinders used to see things that are far away – watches James sing on a street corner with Bob the Cat.”
There was absolute silence as he spoke. No one whispered or munched on snacks – instead, the audience listened intently.
Tell me what you see
Wang was inspired to present films to blind audiences after telling a friend about “The Terminator”.
“I saw sweat run down his forehead when I described the action scenes. He was so excited,” he said. “He kept saying, tell me what you see!”
Wang rented a small room in an old courtyard in Beijing with his savings in 2005 and started the Talking Film Club with a small flat-screen TV, a used DVD player, and about 20 chairs.
His makeshift 20-square-meter (215-square-foot) cinema was always packed.
Explaining movies to a blind audience can be difficult, especially if the plot contains historical or imaginary elements that audience members haven’t yet encountered.
Before showing “Jurassic Park” for example, Wang lets the audience experience several models of dinosaurs.
“I watch a movie at least six or seven times … and write my own detailed script,” said the businessman turned disability activist.
Xin Mu is now partnering with larger cinemas for their screenings. The pandemic also prompted the team to introduce a streaming service with recorded audio narrations.
The group has screened nearly a thousand films over the past 15 years.
China has more than 17 million visually impaired people. Eight million of them are completely blind, according to the Chinese Association of the Blind.
Over the past decade, cities across the country have built more gateways for the blind, added Braille markings to elevator panels, and allowed blind applicants to take exams for government and college jobs.
“But the blind community has limited opportunities to participate in cultural activities,” said Dawning Leung, founder of the Audio Description Association in Hong Kong.
“They are excluded from cinemas, theaters or art exhibitions because there is no awareness of the need for audio narrations.”
“Even audio descriptions in museums are written with sighted people in mind. They tell you the story of an object or where it was found, but rarely describe what it looks like,” she said. declared.
For years, activists have pushed for legislation making audio descriptions mandatory for films, TV shows, or artwork in mainland China, like those in Hong Kong, with little progress.
Xin Mu’s free movie screenings offer a rare chance for blind moviegoers to be part of the world’s biggest box office.
“Movies help enrich my life… they help me understand life’s challenges,” Zhang said.
His favorite film is the Bollywood blockbuster “Dangal”, where a strict father trains his daughters to overcome social taboos and become wrestling champions.
“Sometimes I think, just like the protagonists of this movie, that I can change my destiny by working hard,” he said.
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