Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei Starring in 'Secret' Sci-Fi Film Shot in Beijing

Ai Weiwei in "The Sandstorm"
Ai Weiwei in "The Sandstorm"
 Kickstarter

"When the air is toxic and your lead actor is under surveillance, you make a short film and you shoot it fast."

So reads the tagline of a new Kickstarter campaign for The Sandstorm, a dystopian sci-fi project starring acclaimed Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei.

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The Kickstarter campaign describes the project as "a low-fi sci-fi short, made in China under the radar." Ai, making his acting debut, stars as a smuggler in a world without water. The film is shot by acclaimed cinematographer Christopher Doyle (In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express, Hero, Infernal Affairs).

The film was written and directed by Jason Wishnow, former head of video for the popular Internet lecture series TED Talks. On the campaign page, Wishnow explains how he met Ai after a secret TED Talk was smuggled out of China and delivered to his desk.

Ai has been under constant surveillance by the Chinese authorities since at least 2009. He is by far China's most internationally well known artist; his work has been featured in solo shows at museums around the world. But despite being the son of one of China's most celebrated revolutionary poets, he fell afoul of state authorities after publicly criticizing their handling of the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake and other incidents. In 2011, the police kept him in captivity for 81 days, then placed him under house arrest and seized his passport. He's now known to be working to get his passport back, so that he can again travel abroad.

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Describing their original meeting, Wishnow writes, "An hour into our first conversation (about the flow of information and the collateral damage of uncertainty), he leaned in close and asked, 'What can we do together?' I seized on an unexpected opportunity to pitch a film."

"He listened, confided he loved sci-fi and asked how fast I could write the screenplay," Wishnow continues. He later notes that a subsequent meeting with Ai was interrupted by plainclothes police interrogators who escorted the artist away.

Describing the feel of the film, he says, "Beijing felt like the future, not cool and sleek -- that's Shanghai -- but dim and gritty."

He adds that he brought Doyle onboard, "a man whose eye shaped the aesthetic of Asian cinema," to make his dark story look beautiful.

Because of Ai's status with the Chinese state authorities, Wishnow says they tried to work undercover while filming in Beijing: "We told no one what we were up to. The crew used code names and ever-shifting modes of communication."

Filming of the project is complete, and Wishnow and his team are now using Kickstarter to try to recoup their investment of $33,000 in production costs. Their release plans for The Sandstorm are TBA.

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