The Sandstorm (??? / ???), a dystopian sci-fi short film starring Ai Weiwei (???) as a water smuggler has been released after an uncertain future following a dispute between the filmmaker and the artist. The film also stars Hu Jianing (??? / ???), Li Ning (?? / ??), and Bai Yao (?? / ??) as members of a quarreling love triangle Ai Weiwei’s character walks in on.
Written and directed by TEDTalks’ Director of Film and Video Jason Wishnow and shot by award-winning cinematographer Christopher Doyle (In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express, Hero, Infernal Affairs), the film came about during an extended stay in Beijing where Wishnow went to recharge creatively. Ai Weiwei expressed an interest in working with him, and Wishnow intrigued the artist with the idea of a sci-fi film, a type of project Ai Weiwei had not worked on before.
Wishnow says, “When the air is toxic and your lead actor is under surveillance, you make a short film and you shoot it fast.” The film was discreetly and hurriedly shot in Beijing over the course of two weeks before the Chinese New Year Golden Week holiday. At one point during the filming, the Air Quality Index reading hit an extinction level reading of 800 (300 -500 is considered hazardous). The gas masks worn for a dystopian look were actually needed.
However, the collaboration soured when Wishnow launched a Kickstarter campaign to recoup costs and to raise money for post-production. Ai Weiwei believed that his name and image were inappropriately exploited to promote the film:
“…Ai Weiwei considers that your presentation of the project to him on the understanding that his role would be a minor role only is inconsistent with the manner in which you are promoting the film, and therefore Ai Weiwei considers that you have not only misled him in this regard, but are also potentially deceiving providers of funds to your project as to the extent of Ai Weiwei’s involvement in the project, potentially implicating Ai Weiwei in your deception without his knowledge or consent.”
You can read the full complaint here.
The Kickstarter campaign was suspended, and the film’s future was uncertain. After three visits to Ai Weiwei, Wishnow publicly apologized to him:
“DEAR AI WEIWEI: Recently, I erred as if THE SAND STORM (???) was an average project with average players, even though everything about it was extraordinary. I see how my actions could be perceived as disrespectful to your status as a world-class artist, supporter of the arts, and human rights defender. Your image and identity are precious, so I should have known better than to take at face value an early conversational nod on your part to make and market this movie as I saw fit. Promoting your involvement in the film while failing to fully include you in our Kickstarter preparations was careless. You demonstrated foresight and fortitude by stopping the fundraising campaign before it may have potentially wreaked damage to your public image, and for that I am humbled. Thank you for taking time, earlier this month when I visited, to speak with me about it and for all your previous encouragement with the film. Ai Weiwei, it has been an honor to work beside you and Du Ke Feng – I can imagine no greater artistic and cinematic Dream Team. My intent was to honor you, not exploit you. Despite missteps in fundraising strategy, I hope you might renew your faith in this project, but more than that, I hope you will find it in your heart to forgive me and to consider me your friend. I continue to admire you tremendously, as a person, as a creator, and as a crusader of art and justice. ???”
The fundraising ideas came back, the campaign was reactivated, and the film became one of the most successful short films in Kickstarter history. The film was acquired by indie film site Fandor and premiered at the Telluride Festival on August 31, 2014.