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Ai Weiwei Stars in a Dystopian Sci-Fi Flick Shot in Secret in Beijing

'The Sand Storm' is a short film starring Ai Weiwei, the Chinese architect and dissident who's currently fighting to get his passport back from Chinese authorities.
A still from 'The Sand Storm.' Image: Jason Wishnow/Kickstarter

A powerful nomad who must navigate a gritty city to complete a huge, secret project sounds like the perfect plot for a dystopian sci-fi flick. But in the case of 'The Sand Storm,' it also describes the production itself.

'The Sand Storm' is a short film starring Ai Weiwei, the Chinese architect and dissident who's currently fighting to get his passport back from Chinese authorities. The film, which was shot in Beijing right as the city was setting air pollution records, features Weiwei playing a water smuggler in a dystopian world beset by rampant pollution.


Adding to the intrigue, the Chinese government's persistent interest in Weiwei meant the whole film had to be shot in secret, as quickly as possible.

"Ai Weiwei has a very complicated relationship with the government in China," director Jason Wishnow told me in an interview. "While we didn't set out to make a politically charged film, people might assume that's the case by virtue of his presence. So we were especially mindful of working in that type of environment."

The video above, released as part of a Kickstarter to help fund the 10-minute film's post-production, doesn't give much away from Weiwei's acting debut (that is, if you don't count that Gangnam Style parody).

"It's scary," Weiwei says in the Kickstarter video. "It's not really material of the water, it's about the information."

What makes 'The Sand Storm' unique is the fact that, according to Wishnow, the production mirrors the film itself. Beijing seems a natural setting for a dystopian flick, especially a largely secret production featuring a political dissident in the lead actor role. As Wishnow writes in the Kickstarter:

One of my first meetings with Ai Wei Wei was interrupted by plainclothes police interrogators whisking him away.

We told no one what we were up to. The crew used code names and ever-shifting modes of communication, tapping cloak-and-dagger pulp-fiction playbooks on loan from movies, novels, and late-night television.


It made for a fast-paced production, as you can see in the Kickstarter video. I asked Wishnow if they were worried about permits or any other hang-ups, and he said they just had to go out and work quickly, as they would for a lot of indie films in the US.

"I think it's funny, because I think the permit issue is not too much different than doing a run-and-gun type of film in the States," he said. "We were a fairly sizeable crew. The goal for all of us was to figure out the most effective way possible to make this movie and tell this story."

"A big portion of the film takes place in interiors, so we could carefully control that," he continued. "But yeah, the production had to move really really fast. Christopher Doyle is one of the best cinematographers in the world, he's amazing. He's great to work with, and he's in perpetual motion, which helps."

Wishnow said that shooting a sci-fi film in Beijing felt natural, saying that "Beijing art-directed itself for us." But the film itself was borne out of a meeting with Weiwei, who Wishnow says wanted to develop a project together, at which point Wishnow wrote a script that both Weiwei and Doyle liked. I asked Wishnow if Weiwei's involvement gave 'The Sand Storm' a more political bent, and like any director worth his salt, he basically said to wait and see.

"The great thing with someone as brilliant and intellectual as Ai Weiwei is that being an artist, he lends himself to a universe of multiple interpretations," Wishnow said. "There are a lot things that this movie is about for me, but I don't want to rule out what it might be for others."