Barrier-free cinemas, streaming apps, bookstores increase access to various TV dramas, movies in China
Build ‘blind alley’ in culture
Published: Dec 04, 2023 10:16 PM
People experience a barrier-free film made for visually impaired audiences in a cinema in Beijing. Photo: Courtesy of Wu Qian

People experience a barrier-free film made for visually impaired audiences in a cinema in Beijing. Photo: Courtesy of Wu Qian

With the huge roar of the engine, a giant PLA Air Force fighter jet slices through the sky over a field in an upward maneuver to drive away foreign aircrafts during a combat patrol. For visually impaired Gen-Zer Shen Ke, a young man in his 20s, this experience of viewing Chinese movie Born to Fly (2023) is unlike any other, thanks to it being specially transformed into an accessible version with comprehensive audio descriptions for visually impaired audiences. 

"What a thrilling movie!" exclaimed Shen, who was deeply moved by the patriotic movie, the plot of which revolves around the birth of the J-20, China's most advanced domestically built fighter jet.

The narrator's voice that transforms screen action into vivid descriptions has allowed thousands of visually impaired people in China to access the country's various cultural products from TV series to movies. 

From its very first production Pegasus (2019) to the movie Be Somebody (2021), followed by Born to Fly, Shanghai PMF Pictures "has made accessible versions for all its productions for visually impaired audiences to enjoy sitting in the cinemas," Li Wenwen, its CEO, told the Global Times. 

United in action 

The company later partnered with China's streaming sites like Youku to produce accessible versions online to "ensure those who are unable to access movie theaters can also enjoy films."

"Although it increases production costs, it is worthwhile as it is something meaningful to do," she noted. 

December 3 marked the 32nd International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) and this year's theme was "United in action to rescue and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals for, with, and by persons with disabilities." According to statistics, there are about 17 million visually impaired people in China. 

With the country's rapid development, their spiritual and cultural needs are increasingly valued by the whole society. More and more accessible facilities like barrier-free cinemas, streaming apps, and bookstores are building bridges for them to share in the cultural heritage of the country.

Especially after the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled, took effect in China on May 5, 2022, relevant institutions and companies have created an increasingly rich range of accessible film and television works to meet the needs of the visually impaired.

Youku launched the First Accessible Screening Festival on December 2, which allows free and easy access to a selection of over 2,000 of the latest TV show episodes and films.

These barrier-free films and TV shows not only "reach more visually impaired people in cinemas, communities, and campus, but also are appreciated through barrier-free streaming app by an even wider audience," said Wu Qian, COO of Youku. 

The app has internal adaptations for blind users as every control and element is adapted to meet users' needs, which makes it one of the most used apps by those like Shen. "The content is also specially converted to meet our needs," said Shen. 

After verifications on the official website of the China Disabled Persons' Federation, the visually impaired users can enjoy all the cultural contents on the site from movies and theater works to audios, according to Chen Yanling, head of the program at Youku. 

As the volume of accessible film and television works increases, the forms and themes are also becoming more diverse. 

"I used to 'watch' films, but most of them were outdated movies that I had watched many times. New films and TV works have provided us with more opportunities to share and communicate with friends and family, allowing us to be better involved into today's society," said Dong Yuru, a Beijing woman in her 30s who is visually impaired. 

Photo: Courtesy of Wu Qian

Photo: Courtesy of Wu Qian

Develop with time

Being an indispensable part of creating a sense of normalcy in the lives of individuals living with disabilities, barrier-free screen works, in fact, made their China debut one decade ago.

In 2005, a small screening room in the heart of Beijing served as a film screening venue for visually impaired moviegoers, and has been doing so for decades. In 2017, the Communication University of China (CUC) initiated a more formal project called the Guangming Cinema (Light Cinema).

"Accessible movies" are different from ordinary audio clips. They mainly break down the scenes of the movie and use language specially geared toward visually impaired audiences to facilitate better understanding of the action, visuals, and emotional elements portrayed on screen, helping them appreciate the movie. To transform a movie into an "accessible version," it requires multiple steps and different forms of cooperative work, and the Guangming Cinema is on its way to perfecting the process.

"The demand for accessible movies by people living with disabilities is increasing day by day," said Fu Haizheng, manager of the Light Cinema project and associate dean of the Institute of Accessible Information and Communication at CUC.

The group of more than 500 people provides audio descriptions for a variety of films, including Doraemon, Coco, and the Chinese red revolutionary films 1921 and Wolf Warrior 2. Gehua, a cable business, then makes the descriptions available online to over its 200 million subscribers and hosts in-theater movie screenings. 

The Guangming Cinema is now based in a modest recording studio inside CUC, which is a production center for hundreds of movie audio descriptions specially made for theaters across China that serve the visually impaired.

Nearly 600 accessible movies have been completed by the project.

"And our next goal is for these audio descriptions of films to be available at the same time as their main cinema release, so that people with visual impairments can walk into the cinema with their family and friends to cry and laugh together, and even more importantly, 'enter the society' by freely participating in its social and cultural life," Fu noted.

Challenges remain not only due to the copyright concerns as few production companies are willing to take part in the barrier-free version, but also because of the long production process and high narrative standards. 

It is necessary to consider the richness of film genres as well as the viewing preferences of the visually impaired when selecting films, according to Chen of Youku. Even the descriptive words used are also carefully selected. 

For example, the use of words such as "colorful" and "extremely bright" is avoided. "First of all, visually impaired people may not be able to form pictures in their imagination; second, they may feel uncomfortable," Chen said. 

Film and television works are the art of telling stories using visual mediums. Different people have different understandings of the same picture. In the production process, the biggest challenge lies in how to use language and scripts to create relatively complete and aesthetically pleasing mental imagery for the visually impaired.

A lot of effort goes into writing scripts. They need to be mindful of how many seconds they have to describe something, and they have to make decisions about what the most important things to describe are. With limited time, they can't describe everything.

"In using visually descriptive language, their psychological vision can correspond to real things, and they are not far away from really 'seeing' things," said Chen. "More importantly, descriptions can't be given coldly, which not only describes what is seen on screen, but also conveys emotions, thoughts, and culture that the director really wants to express."