From the darkness

Updated: 2012-03-01 09:59

By Chen Nan (China Daily)

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From the darkness

Sight-impaired people enjoy a movie at the Beijing Hong Dan Dan Educational and Cultural Exchanging Center. Photos by Zou Hong / China Daily

From the darkness

Hong Dan Dan's cinema opens to sight-impaired people every Saturday.

New programs enable the visually impaired to enjoy films. Chen Nan reports.

The 6-year-old girl's Saturday afternoon starts with being blindfolded and grabbing a long piece of rope. Wei Xilu and about 100 others grope the rope to feel their way to their seats. Wei is nervous and excited as she locates her seat next to her mother. "It's so dark," Wei says, to her mom. "I want to hold your hand." Wei is participating in the If I Had 3 Days of Darkness: Cinema For the Sight-Impaired program at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing. To help audiences experience how people with sight impairment enjoy movies, the project shows blindfolded participants scenes from the films Scent of A Woman, Letter From an Unknown Woman and If You Are the One II, with a narrator describing the scenes.

"It was so uncomfortable," Wei says. "I was scared at first."

Later, the lights turn on, and audience members remove their blindfolds.

"I took the blindfold off my eyes in the middle of the movie and felt safe," Wei confesses.

Secretary General of the Chinese Association of Visual Anthropology (CAVA) Deng Weiying says she brought Wei to enable her daughter to experience a totally different life.

"I want her to know how people with sight impairments hear the images and feel in the darkness," Deng says.

"Even walking to your seat takes a long time, let alone going through daily life. Such a program tells us we should care about, and try to better understand, people who live every moment in darkness."

The program ends with 27-year-old Dong Lina, a student who was born blind and majors in broadcasting at the Communication University of China, reading Helen Keller's Three Days to See.

Since 2010, such programs have been run regularly at such cultural centers as UCCA, where it's held every month, and Beijing Hong Dan Dan Educational and Cultural Exchanging Center.

"Some doubted we could sustain the program because we're nonprofit," says Dong, who joined the program in 2005 after leaving her hometown of Qingdao, Shandong province, to pursue her dreams in Beijing.

"But now we're expanding to a larger scale to enable sighted individuals to experience our disadvantages and help them understand the importance of our program."

She points out the country is home to more than 6 million people with sight impairments.

"Although what we're doing can only reach a small number of people, we will continue to expand its influence and call for more help," Dong says.

Hong Dan Dan started a cinema for sight-impaired people in 2004.

From the darkness

A day before the public event at UCCA, nearly 30 sight-impaired people sat in a 50-square-meter room inside a courtyard near Gulou Dajie in Beijing. Movie posters and DVDs took up the rest of the space.

"See the world with blind people," was written on the wall.

A narrator described the film's scenes to the sight-impaired audience: "The man lights a fire in his hands and walks along the dark, narrow alley. He opens the prison door and sees an old man with white hair and a beard. He hands the fire to the old man, who laughs and plays with the flame in his palm."

The young woman narrator was describing scenes from the The Great Magician, one of many movies sight-impaired people have come to the courtyard to enjoy from 9 am until noon every Saturday.

The narration stops during dialogue and resumes to describe the kung fu fighting scenes. Audiences laugh and show amazement throughout the film and discuss it afterward.

"At first only the sight-impaired people from the neighborhood came, and most were middle-aged or elderly," a Hong Dan Dan employee says.

"Now, they come from all over the city and outskirts."

Zeng quit her job in her hometown in Jiangxi province to volunteer at the center seven years ago and is in charge of the daily operations of the cinema for the visually impaired.

"We like romantic and inspirational movies," says 56-year-old retiree Zhao Baozhi, who comes every weekend with her husband, who lost his sight in a car accident 20 years ago.

"Science documentaries and blockbusters with too many visual effects aren't suitable for us. We feel respected and cared for here."

Zeng says the program hasn't moved into actual cinemas because they're not suitable for the visually impaired and the sound is too loud and can damage hearing.

"Although the sounds of the movie and of the narration sometimes overlap, audiences can get the information they want because their ears are very sensitive," Zeng explains.

There are now eight full-time staff members like Zeng and more than 1,000 volunteers conducting public events, training narrators and fundraising.

"The program was more like a community event at first," Zeng says.

"Now, it's a social responsibility."

Hong Dan Dan's co-founder Wang Dawei trains narrators but says not everyone can do the job.

"Some are shy and lack the ability to describe scenes, and some don't know how to balance the tempo of narration with the movies' sound," he says. "It takes time and practice."

Wang, who is a former TV show editor, lived and talked with sight-impaired people to understand their listening habits.

"I usually start by explaining the film's genre and plotline," Wang says. "Describing films for the sight-impaired is a special skill that's like learning a second language. It requires proper inflection, patience, a good voice and having seen the movie several times."

Narrators become the "camera lenses" that "shoot" the film for the audiences.

"You can never say a character is 'depressed'. Narrators must explain precisely what they see. They must instead say: 'She's sitting silently beside a table, her eyes cast down and her hands clasped,'" he continues. "Never underestimate sight-impaired people's ability to imagine a picture. That guides everyone to a better experience, and everyone has different experience."

The center also runs an audio library, in which volunteers have recorded books, ranging from classical novels to new literary works, on CDs. It takes a volunteer nearly two months to finish a 300-page book and just a few days for the user to finish the book.

"Being a volunteer here requires patience and lasting passion, which guarantees the quality of our work and the trust of the people we serve," Zeng says.