Public-service project in China helps visually impaired people ‘see’ movies

By Shi Fang, Yu Feiyang


“‘See’ the colors of the world through sounds, and enjoy the beauty of art by listening. Welcome to the ‘Ever Shining Cinema’. Today we are going to present to you The Wandering Earth…”


It was the opening remarks made by a volunteer of “Ever Shining Cinema”, a public-service project aimed at interpreting movies for visually impaired people, at a movie activity held in southwest China’s Sichuan province.


With her eyes closed and head slightly raised, Ma Deli from Dechang county, Xichang city, Liangshan Yi autonomous prefecture of southwest China’s Sichuan province, listened to the narration for the movie attentively. She didn’t want to miss any detail.


When hearing a thrilling episode, she clutched the armrests nervously.


Ma runs a blind massage parlor. She seldom went out after she completely lost her sight, let alone to the movies.


When she heard that the association of persons with visual disabilities in Sichuan province would show a barrier-free movie, Ma immediately decided to approve a day off to “see” the movie with the staff.


The barrier-free movie was prepared by a team of volunteers of the “Ever Shining Cinema” project initiated by the Communication University of China (CUC). The team has handled every link from the production to the screening of the barrier-free movie.


Founded nearly five years ago, the project has recorded volunteers of more than 500 CUC teachers and students. They have produced over 500 barrier-free movies of various genres, including animation, science fiction, as well as realistic and historical movies.


So far, the “Ever Shining Cinema” project has held public-service activities and promotions in China’s 31 provincial-level regions, and brought barrier-free movies and TV shows to 2,244 special education schools across the country.


Research suggests that able-bodied people perceive up to 80 percent of all impressions by means of their sight. However, there are more than 17 million people with visual impairment in China. How to make movies, which mainly relied on light and color, understood by visually impaired people was the first problem the project had to solve.


At first, teachers at the CUC wanted to use sound editing to narrate the movie in about half an hour. The idea was abandoned after in-depth discussions among members of the volunteer team.


“Audiences usually enjoy a movie in a cinema, where they can feel the ups and downs of the story. People with visual impairment should also be able to enjoy a movie like that,” said Zhao Xijing, associate researcher at the Faculty of Journalism and Communication, CUC.


At last, the “Ever Shining Cinema” decided to add detailed descriptions of the movie scenes during the intervals of the original dialogues and sounds, explaining the scenes and the emotions and meanings behind them.


“The name of the project, ‘Ever Shining Cinema’, means helping people with visual impairment seek light and gain hope,” said Fu Haizheng, deputy head of the research institute for barrier-free communication of the CUC.


“Barrier-free movies don’t merely describe movie scenes. More importantly, they help people with visual impairment understand the meanings of the scenes. It takes great effort to present an audio feast,” said Hu Fang, a postgraduate at the CUC.


“We watch every scene of a movie more than 10 times before we can convert it into a narrative script. We need to pause a movie at least 3,000 times to make a barrier-free version of it,” said Li Yiying, a doctoral student at the CUC who participated in the production.


The production process includes such links as the selection of movies, narrative writing, review and revision of script, recording, editing and sound mixing. According to Li, it takes more than a month to produce a barrier-free version of a 2-hour movie, and the narrative script usually contains more than 20,000 Chinese characters.


In addition to the production, thoughtful services for the special audience should be prepared at the venues where the movie activities are held.


In an effort to provide a good movie experience, volunteers of the “Ever Shining Cinema” project pay close attention to every detail.


They walk the entire route several times and make a thorough work plan before every movie activity, considering the convenient drop-off points for visually impaired people and noticing obstacles they might encounter along the way.


When a barrier-free version of the movie Operation Red Sea was presented at a cinema in Chaoyang district of Beijing, more than 100 volunteers formed a 100-meter-long passage with their bodies to ensure the safety of the audience. Visually impaired viewers were guided all the way from where they got off to their seats.


Thanks to the “Ever Shining Cinema” project, many people with visual impairment got the first movie ticket in their lives. Their movie tickets are specially designed and printed.


“When I saw them carefully fondling the movie tickets and laughing or shedding tears during a movie, I knew all our efforts were worthwhile,” said Li Chaopeng, a doctoral student at the CUC.


“Volunteers’ narration has brought us the infinite charm of movies and enabled people with visual impairment to enjoy public cultural services,” said He Chuan, deputy head of China Association of Persons with Visual Disabilities.


Volunteers of the “Ever Shining Cinema” project produce 104 barrier-free movies every year to make sure people with visual impairment can enjoy two new movies a week on average, which is equal to or even more than the average number of times able-bodied people watch movies a week.


In September 2022, the public-service project launched on-demand services of barrier-free movies on cable TVs in China, covering more than 200 million households across the country.