Guided by their white cane, the spectators sit in the armchairs of a cinema in old Beijing. Blind or visually impaired, they “watch” the film thanks to the passionate narration of volunteers who describe the scenes to them.
Zhang Xinsheng, 51, doesn’t miss any of these weekly sessions. Every Saturday, he takes the metro for two hours, using his cane and his GPS application which shows him the directions to follow.
After losing his eyesight around the age of 20 due to a degenerative disease, he rediscovered his love of cinema thanks to the Xinmu (“Mind’s Eye”) Club and its small group of volunteers.
“The first time I listened to an audio description film was in 2014. It’s like a new world opened up for me,” he explains.
“I felt like I could understand the plot despite my blindness. Clear images formed in my mind.”
Dozens of blind or visually impaired spectators now attend these free screenings.
The narrator in the room, equipped with a microphone, describes what is happening on the screen: the facial expressions of the characters, their gestures, their clothes or even the weather.
It also details the visual clues necessary for understanding the film. Like the passage from a scene of falling leaves to a scene of snowfall, which reflects the evolution of the seasons.
– Sweat –
Today, Xinmu is hosting a screening of the British film “A Street Cat Named Bob”, in which a cat helps a homeless man solve his drug problems.
“The snow is falling on London, a city in England. It’s a bit like Beijing but the buildings are not as big”, explains the narrator, Wang Weili, between two dialogues dubbed in Chinese.
“A man with binoculars – kind of long cylinders you use to see things from afar – watches James singing around the corner with Bob the Cat.”
No spectator talks or nibbles on popcorn. All listen religiously, eyes closed.
It was while telling a blind friend about the American film “Terminator” that Wang Weili, a former businessman, had the idea to comment on the films to visually impaired people.
“I could see the sweat running down his forehead as I described the action scenes to him. He was really into it,” he smiles. “He kept telling me: keep describing to me what you see!”
– Dinosaurs –
In 2005, with his savings, Wang Weili started renting a room in a house in Old Beijing. With a small TV, a used DVD player and twenty chairs, the club was born.
His makeshift cinema at the time, measuring 20 square meters, was full at every screening.
Describing films to a blind audience, however, can be a challenge, especially those with a strong historical context or elements unknown to viewers.
Before the screening of “Jurassic Park” for example, Wang Weili gives them models of dinosaurs so that they can touch them and visualize what they are.
“I watch a film at least six or seven times (…) and I write my own very detailed script,” he explains.
In 15 years, the Xinmu club has screened nearly a thousand films.
It now organizes its screenings in larger and modern cinemas. Due to the pandemic, it also broadcasts its films in audio description on the internet.
– “Few opportunities” –
China has an estimated 17 million visually impaired people, eight million of whom are totally blind, according to the China Association of the Blind.
In recent decades, cities have built tactile lanes to guide the visually impaired, added Braille markings to elevator keys, and even allowed blind people to take civil service exams.
“But it is true that they have few opportunities to participate in cultural activities,” Dawning Leung, Hong Kong founder of the Audio Description Association, told AFP.
“Even audio guides in museums are written with sighted people in mind. They tell you about the history of an object or where it was found, but rarely describe what it looks like.”
Associations are campaigning for the law to impose audio descriptions for films or television shows. Without much success for the moment.
“The cinema makes it possible to make the city more beautiful (…) and to better understand its challenges”, explains Zhang Xinsheng, the visually impaired spectator.
His favorite film is the Indian blockbuster “Dangal”, where a father-trainer encourages his daughters to overcome taboos to become wrestling champions.
“Sometimes, like the heroines in the film, I tell myself that I can change my destiny by working hard,” says Zhang.