Shooting a film is stressful enough. It’s even more stressful if you’re shooting in China, and your principal actor remains something of a permanent fixture on the Chinese government’s shit list. Yet, somehow, filmmaker Jason Wishnow was able to pull off casting famous Chinese political activist and artist Ai Weiwei in a Kickstarter-funded sci-fi film, one in which the artist plays a water smuggler in a heavily polluted, water-scarce future. There’s only one problem: Ai Weiwei just wiped the $88,000-funded project from the Internet.
Until Sunday night, Wishnow’s 10-minute sci-fi flick was shaping up to be one of the most successfully funded Kickstarter films of all time. The full-length, Kickstarter-funded Ai Weiwei documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, only had 793 backers, and yet The Sand Storm reached 2,000 backers two weeks ahead of its May 1 deadline. In a matter of days, the filmmakers easily met their initial $33,000 goal, then exceeded an $88,000 stretch goal. It seemed like a director’s dream come true. When I met with Wishnow last week to talk about the film’s environmental themes, he told me that he had taken a major risk and poured much of his own savings into the project.
It now appears that Wishnow may have misconstrued Ai’s involvement, misunderstood him, or played an unwitting role in a larger performance piece. A few days before the deadline, Kickstarter abruptly removed the page, citing copyright infringement. Ai also tweeted a cease-and-desist letter from his studio representatives.
“We want to make it clear that Ai Weiwei does not approve of the way in which his image and involvement have been co-opted for promotional purposes,” they wrote. “We believe that the promotion of the film has been misleading; both to Ai Weiwei as a participant and also to those who have helped fund the campaign.”
Ai’s reps accused the director of using Ai’s name and image without the artist’s consent. They argued that Wishnow breached copyright by posting images of the film shoot from the artist’s public Instagram feed. Ai’s studio demanded a full cancellation of the Kickstarter project as well as a public apology. (Wishnow has not yet responded for comment on the allegations.)
It was a bizarre turn of events, especially considering the amount of work that had gone into the project, and Ai’s own promotional zeal.
Wishnow first made indirect contact with Ai as the head of TED Talks’ video department. A month before Ai would be detained by Chinese authorities for vague “economic crimes” (and remain there for 81 days), TED published a video from the artist that had been smuggled out of China. Ai still does not have a passport, and has reported searches and constant monitoring from the Chinese government.
Wishnow eventually met Ai, and pitched him the Sand Storm film idea: “Ai Weiwei would play a smuggler in a world without water, as told through the lens of a personal, human drama. Already the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary, this would mark his acting debut,” Wishnow wrote on the now-defunct Kickstarter page. “He asked how fast I could write the screenplay.”
The director tracked down cinematographer Christopher Doyle, translated the script into Mandarin, shot the film covertly in China, and recorded an original score with a 28-piece string orchestra in London. It was supposed to be discreet, but Ai himself Instagrammed an image of the shoot.
At first, it appeared that the artist’s participation in the film would bring even more attention to one of his pet issues: China’s extreme air-quality problem. Last year, Ai posted pictures of himself to Twitter wearing a gas mask after Beijing’s smog concentration hit a level 40 times the World Health Organization’s safety ceiling. Pollution also played a large role in the film to-be: While Wishnow intended to have the actors wear gas masks for effect, much of the crew had to wear masks anyway just in order to breathe on set.
So was Ai Weiwei truly misled? The artist’s protest against Wishnow’s use of his image just seems weird. After all, Ai’s face and middle finger has been plastered all over tea towels and iPhone cases now on sale at the Brooklyn Museum gift shop. (Something Ai acknowledged by retweet.)
And yet, it is possible that Ai caved to some sort of pressure to sink the project (unlikely), or simply imagined something more along the lines of a cameo rather than a starring role. Then again, it could be that Ai Weiwei just turned The Sand Storm into a larger performance. If the artist could make a statement by shattering a 2,000-year-old Han dynasty urn to bits, what would stop him from doing it to a Kickstarter?