Rural projectionist lights up villages with silver screen

HEFEI (Xinhua) – When night falls, rural projectionist Wan Li can be seen setting up a curtain and stereo, debugging a projector, and preparing to screen a film to audiences in a remote village.

“Villagers now finish their dinners late in the busy farming season, so I delay show times accordingly,” said 57-year-old Wan, from Guzhen County in east China’s Anhui Province.

A cinephile since childhood, Wan fulfilled his dream to become a projectionist at the age of 18 and has now been devoted to screening movies at his “mobile cinema” for 39 years, showing over 10,000 films in that time. “It was not easy to see a movie when I was a child. Every time I heard a movie would be screened in a village, I would walk there even it was far away from my home,” Wan said, adding that he was fascinated by the magic of the silver screen.

Wan recalled his first movie screening with fondness. “Over 2,000 people flocked to see the film, and many came two hours in advance with stools so they could get a good seat. I felt so proud to be a projectionist then,” he said.

Around 1980, villages and towns across China established film teams, each with two or three projectionists. They were tasked with promoting culture and agricultural science among the country’s rural population. Village administrations bore the costs so that movies would be free of charge for viewers. Wan’s film team consisted of himself and Zou Xiaohong. Zou, who was in charge of operating the electric generator, later married Wan. “Films brought me a job as well as a wife,” he said.

In the beginning, Wan and Zou had to push a handcart loaded with heavy equipment to tour villages. They then purchased a bicycle, which was later replaced by a motorbike.

In the 1990s, however, outdoor cinema audiences gradually declined as television became mainstream and more villagers migrated to big cities for decent jobs. But Wan did not give up amid the low tide. To keep his family afloat, he took on many other jobs such as security guard and construction worker. “He seems to be enchanted by movie screenings, and I support him,” said Zou.

In recent years, gathering to watch movies has seen a comeback in many villages. The Chinese government issued a policy to support film screenings in rural areas. It called for at least one free screening per month in each village, which would be subsidised by the government.

“I now project 120 movies in 10 villages a year,” said Wan, adding that traditional film projectors have been replaced by digital ones, providing a wealth of quality films for villagers.