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Who could forget Ai Weiwei’s foray into music last spring? The Chinese artist’s heavy metal album was not exactly the best-received work he’s done, but as our reviewer wrote at the time, “Ai Weiwei will be OK.” And he does seem to be OK (as much as one can be while under constant surveillance by the Chinese government). In fact, he’s branching out creatively once more, this time with his first acting role.
It’s not much of a stretch. Ai has said in recent years that his life is now his artwork, and indeed, the surveillance makes it so that he’s constantly performing, in a way, for Chinese officials. He even once set up his own cameras all over his property in order to surveil himself, streaming it live to the world. He’s also been the subject of two documentaries — the first one, by Alison Klayman, released in 2012, and the second one, by Andreas Johnsen, due out next month.
In “The Sand Storm,” however, a short sci-fi film currently fundraising for postproduction on Kickstarter, Ai plays an imaginary character: a water smuggler. The 10-minute movie was shot by Christopher Doyle and written and directed by Jason Wishnow, a filmmaker and the former head of the video department at TED.
Wishnow had just moved to Beijing when he received an offer to visit Ai’s studio. The two had never met, but Wishnow had been in touch with Ai’s staff when the artist’s TED talk was smuggled out of China to New York. And when Wishnow arrived at Ai’s studio, the two got to talking for a long time. “There’s just something about Ai and his personality and his presence and the type of work he creates [that] is all so monumental,” Wishnow told Hyperallergic. “Just spending time with him, I felt like he possessed this energy that would be incredible in front of the camera.”
Wishnow explained that the night before the meeting, “I happened to be having a conversation with a friend about possible movie ideas, and the one that I dismissed first was a disaster scenario.” When he met Ai the next day, “that idea suddenly came back like a flood, and this movie really crystallized.”
“At one point in the conversation, he asked what I wanted to do in China,” Wishnow continued, “and said something along the lines of, ‘What do you want to do together? Let me know, I’ll make it happen.’ Honestly, he could have said, ‘here are some restaurant recommendations’ and that would have also been great, because I had only been in Beijing for a week.”
Wishnow left, wrote a script, and returned to present it to Ai, who immediately agreed. The dystopian narrative focuses on a world extremely scarce in water, with Ai playing a smuggler of the natural resource. Through mutual friends, Wishnow was also able to enlist Christopher Doyle, who was living in Hong Kong at the time, as cinematographer; he had also never met Ai, but the two quickly connected, and Doyle went on to shoot Ai’s heavy metal music video (which, because of shorter production time, was released before the film).
“The Sand Storm” was shot in two days, on the fly, throughout the smoggy city of Beijing. “We used the word ‘secrecy’ on the website,” Wishnow explained. “A better word would be — we were extremely discreet in how we moved, and I think that worked to an advantage for us. I didn’t set out to make an overtly critical film by any means, but given the subject, given the star, I’m certain that would be … there will always be a lot to explain about what the project is and what my motives are.” There were no run-ins or incidents with Chinese officials, Wishnow said, and indeed, one wonders if Ai might have enjoyed playing someone besides himself on camera for a change. “When the film is finished, I’m curious as to how people will respond in terms of how they view the water smuggler, as an isolated character or a representation of a living person, or of his persona,” Wishnow said. “When I first approached Ai with the idea, one of the first things I said was, ‘This isn’t a documentary. It’s not about you. You’re not playing yourself; you’re playing a character in another world.’ But what’s great about Ai’s performance is the little ways he brings himself into that character. You have these moments that are distinctly Weiwei-esque.”
“The Sand Storm” has reached its goal on Kickstarter but will continue fundraising through May. Its public release has not yet been set.