AD Spotlight: Heart Cinema

Audio describers all over the world are making advances in their craft every day. The ‘Spotlight’ blog series draws attention to individuals who are advancing AD through their practice, industry, and activism.

Image: A Disney animation plays on a television and a man with a microphone describes what is happening on screen.

In this post we focus on the rise of audio description in China, where volunteers, local governments, and filmmakers have been working to increase the accessibility of cinema for all.

As this recent article explains, Heart Cinema in Beijing is an example of such progress in action; providing live audio description for all its films.

“Founded in 2005, Heart Cinema is reportedly the first cinema of this kind. Volunteer narrators introduce, describe, and explain unidentifiable information such as characters, movements, and scenes between lines to help the visually impaired understand the movies.

More than a decade later, more and more young people are volunteering and helping to expand the service to other cities in China and online.”

Lu Zhao

Similar audio description hubs have arisen in the cities of Shanghai, Wuxi, and Kunming, where volunteers perform live audio description each week and sometimes provide recorded tracks.

The demand for these services is increasing. According to China’s Association for the Blind, there are 17.31 million people with visual impairment in the country, which is 20.36% of China’s total disabled population.

Of course, live audio describing is not a simple task. Liu Tong has volunteered at Heart Cinema for nine years. As she explains to Zhau, many hours of preparation go into her performance:

She used to take months preparing for a film. Liu’s first script was for Lan, a 2009 autobiographical film directed by Chinese actress Jiang Wenli. It took her half a year to finish the script. Now, after 63 narrations, she can get ready in four days.

Lu Zhau

As awareness of audio description and its benefits spreads, there is hope that more services, funding, and tools will become available. The potential for collaboration with the film industry is also an area of great potential in China, as in Australia.

“Accessible films should not only be a public welfare action, but also a part of film and television production.”

Han Dongxue, CEO of Yier Information Technology

Ultimately, access to cinema is about much more than simple entertainment or commerce. As one viewer explains, being able to access films has transformed his life:

A vision-impaired Chinese man speaks to the camera. Closed Caption translation: "After I began to know a movie in this way..."
The vision-impaired man continues to speak to the camera, now smiling. Closed Caption translation: "I began to feel that my life is worth living.""

AD Spotlight: Shakila Maharaj

Audio describers all over the world are making advances in their craft every day. The ‘Spotlight’ blog series draws attention to individuals who are advancing AD through their practice, industry, and activism.

A poster promoting Shazacin Movie Night in colaboration with the Alliance Française on October 6th, 2021. Text gives address and states "Special Screening of the South African classic - now with audio description! - eLollipop (1975)."
ShazaCin Movie Night poster

Our first featured audio describer is Shakila Maharaj from South Africa. As reported by Frank Chemaly for The Independent, Maharaj is a trained audio describer, app developer, and avid movie fan working to improve and develop AD as a viable industry. Thanks to her, this month saw the launch of a full audio description track for the classic South African film e’Lollipop (1975), directed by Ashley Lazarus.

With funding from SmartXchange, Maharaj has worked with a team to develop an audio description app. “We’re doing everything ourselves,” she explains, “from creating the descriptions, to voicing them and recording them, to synchronising them with the movie.” Maharaj is hoping to distribute and expand this tool in a way that can assist people consuming and producing audio description.

“We need to remember there are 50 million blind people in Africa and one million in South Africa, and that doesn’t look at ageing people with visual impairment. Research shows there are many people for whom [AD] enhances their enjoyment.

“We’re creating a whole new industry, a whole new market, so we’re busy creating a lot of awareness, awareness for blind people themselves, awareness in the film and television industry.”

Shakila Maharaj

In the following video, Maharaj discusses audio description in a presentation for the Brussels World Summit on Accessible Tourism: Destinations for All 2018.