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Film classes leave imprint on rural pupils

University students take movie appreciation lectures to countryside to promote art, culture, Xu Fan reports.

In late August, in Xining, capital of Qinghai province, the signs of autumn appeared with a cool breeze permeating the air. Yet, inside a classroom at Qinghai Normal University's Affiliated Experimental School, a group of teenagers was feverish with excitement.

Under the guidance of a young teacher, the students were divided into two teams to discuss the contrasting views presented in The Wandering Earth, China's highest-grossing sci-fi blockbuster, a fictional account of life on the planet being imperiled by the sun burning out.

While some students advocated for the construction of massive thrusters to relocate Earth to a new solar system, others opposed this plan due to perceived risks. Instead, they proposed an alternative solution: that humanity should evacuate in spaceships and leave their home planet behind.

"It's very interesting and refreshing. I have never had this kind of class before," says 14-year-old Yang Chengyan, who is now hooked on reading more sci-fi tales by Liu Cixin, author of The Wandering Earth.

The class is part of a nonprofit project called Taking Movies to the Countryside — College Students Support Art Education in the New Era. Launched by Beijing Normal University in 2021, the program aims to encourage college students to volunteer during their vacations in remote areas and give art and culture classes to local children, using classic movies as one of the main teaching materials.

Starting in July and lasting almost a month, the project has dispatched more than 100 college students to six regions — Guizhou, Hebei, Shaanxi, and Qinghai provinces, along with the Guangxi Zhuang and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous regions.

Chen Sifang, a 23-year-old student pursuing a master's degree at Beijing Normal University's School of Arts and Communication, was selected as the main lecturer for the final leg of the monthlong trip. She gave lessons at a school in Xinghai county in southwestern Qinghai province.

Chen recalls when the volunteer lecturers took six hours to travel from Xining to the county, which has an average altitude of 3,900 meters, as the bus approached, they saw clear blue skies, vast grasslands and roaming cattle, making them feel refreshed.

After consulting her fellow volunteers, Chen selected 30 movies, including Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore's The Legend of 1900 and Chinese director Zhang Yimou's My Father and Mother, as coaching materials for nearly 70 local students from three primary schools and two junior middle schools.

Interestingly, Chen found a young girl who said Zhang's movie was her favorite because the romance between the two main characters, a beautiful country woman and a young teacher, was similar to her own parents' love story.

"As a student majoring in drama and film studies, I realized at that moment that ordinary people's real lives can actually be like movies, with some beautiful moments," Chen says.

"Being part of this project has also taught me that in my future career choices, I might also try to combine film and education, using movies to influence more people positively," she adds.

Xiao Xiangrong, dean of the School of Arts and Communication at Beijing Normal University, says that the project will also help college students get recruited for a nationwide program to train 10,000 fresh graduates to work as teachers in 832 counties every year. The program is part of efforts to send more talent to underdeveloped areas in central and western China.

"We wish not only to cultivate outstanding students, but also to nurture great future teachers. Therefore, instead of merely sitting in the classrooms, we encourage students not only to imagine future scenarios, but also to experience the reality of education in rural areas. This experience will greatly benefit their work after graduation," Xiao says.

Li Ruoyu, a 20-year-old university English major, is among the select group of specially recruited students. After completing her studies, she has committed to returning to her hometown in Hebei province to teach at a county school.

She is the lecturer on a sci-fi film in the class in Xining. This is the second time she has joined the annual project. Li says her experience as a "temporary" teacher has made her more confident, bold and composed when dealing with a classroom of children.

Chen Gang, the deputy dean of the arts and communication school, says that a giant screen and projection equipment have been transported to the six regions for outdoor screenings of blockbusters like comedian Shen Teng's Moon Man and the revolutionary epic 1921.

"When night falls, more and more people gathered around the big screen. Besides the children, their parents were also drawn to come. As they stared intently at the outdoor movie, at that moment, you would believe that a film could truly leave an imprint on their lives," he says.

Chen Sifang, a 23-year-old student from Beijing Normal University, gives a class on classic movies to children in Xinghai county, Qinghai province, as part of a nonprofit project. CHINA DAILY

From top: Huang Yimin, a dance major, teaches a child in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region how to use a camera; Li Ruoyu, a 20-year-old English major, organizes a class about the sci-fi movie The Wandering Earth in Xining, Qinghai province; rural art education volunteers erect a giant movie screen at a school in Dahua Yao autonomous county in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. CHINA DAILY