For the past 18 years, Reckoning Theater in Beijing has been narrating movies to its audience — describing the scenes and settings, and contextualizing the moving images on the screen.
That’s because its patrons are visually impaired, and the one-of-its-kind theater has become a go-to venue for those longing to experience the magic of movies despite their disability. Xiao Huanyi is one of the theater’s loyal moviegoers.
“I wasn’t interested in movies at first,” the 64-year-old, who was born with congenital blindness, told Sixth Tone in a phone interview. “I used to listen to stories via radio broadcasts, which narrate the plots. Reckoning Theater is different — it describes the scene, which is precious.”
Spaces like the Reckoning Theater in the capital’s Xicheng District are rare when it comes to serving the entertainment needs of those with visual impairments. As of 2021, there were more than 17 million visually impaired people in China, and as the country marks the International Day of Disabilities, which is observed annually on Dec. 3, there are growing calls to improve their physical and psychological well-being.
Wang Weili, who founded the theater and later the nonprofit Hongdandan to serve the blind community, told Sixth Tone that he started the initiative after finding a gap between basic needs and other necessities for the visually impaired. The 64-year-old particularly remembered watching the Hollywood action flick “The Terminator” with a blind friend in 2000 and describing every scene to him in detail, which the latter thoroughly enjoyed — it ultimately inspired him to undertake the theater project.
“They have the right to know and should know everything that we know,” Wang said. “The government can provide special schools and sidewalks to meet their basic living needs. But life isn’t made up just of basic living needs.”
Wang Weili narrates movies to his audience. Courtesy of Reckoning Theater
Since 2004, the theater has organized 1,088 free movie screenings, including hits like the sci-fi blockbuster “The Wandering Earth” and romantic drama “The Road Home.” Nearly 48,000 people have since become a part of the movie-watching experience, including Xiao, who has been visiting the theater for the past 12 years.
Disability rights advocates have long demanded that movies should be accessible to all audiences, including those with visual and hearing impairments. However, there are far fewer movies or theaters that include closed captioning or descriptive narration for viewers with special needs — they’re limited to places like the Reckoning Theater.
But fulfilling the task isn’t an easy feat, said the theater’s founder. As a narrator himself, Wang said he needs to watch a movie multiple times to get familiar with the plot and characters. He then has to analyze the movie’s scenes and settings to explain the nuances before writing the narration, and also get permission from the filmmakers. Preparations for a screening of a two-and-a-half-hour movie could take as long as two weeks.
“The blind listen to radio broadcasts a lot so they already know a lot of stories with fancy plots,” Wang said. “The point is not about what happened in the movies, but about what appeared in the movies.”
What started as a one-man project with his own personal savings has now expanded and operates with the help of a few volunteers and donations from his nonprofit. Apart from movies, Wang also hosts various outdoor events and cultural activities that aim to enhance the sensory experiences of the visually impaired through touch and sound.
“The world is made up of heat, smell, texture, sound, and so on. I want to narrow the gap between us,” said Wang.
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: Visually impaired audiences wait for the screening at the Reckoning Theater. Courtesy of Reckoning Theater）