Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei locked in spat with director over crowdfunded sci-fi debut

Due to promotional disagreements, the future of 'The Sandstorm' now lies in question

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 April, 2014, 4:29pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 April, 2014, 5:28pm

An independent science fiction film starring Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei has become the subject of controversy, with Ai claiming that he was misled in lending his name and image to the project.

In a letter directed to director Jason Wishnow on April 23, Ai argued that he had never agreed to be promoted as the star of The Sandstorm, a ten-minute film depicting a smoggy, futuristic China where water has become as scarce as reliable information.

Ai was cast as a water smuggler in the movie, which was shot in early 2013 and raised over US$60,000 from crowdfunding site Kickstarter. The money, collected from more than 2,000 supporters, was meant to go towards promotion and post-production work.

In his letter, Ai wrote that he did not give consent for Wishnow to use his name and image to promote the film. Ai also claimed that he had only agreed to take a minor role in the project and had never been informed that he would be billed as its star.

Watch: Kickstarter trailer for 'The Sandstorm'

“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...potentially implicating Ai Weiwei in your deception without his knowledge or consent,” said the letter, drafted by a representative for the artist.

Currently, all Kickstarter content pertaining to The Sandstorm has been taken offline. According to a notice posted on Kickstarter, the film is "the subject of an intellectual property dispute and is currently unavailable".

More specifically, the notice also states that "photographs taken by Mr. Ai Weiwei (posted to his Instagram account) and constituting his copyrighted material [were] reproduced on the Kickstarter website...without Mr. Ai’s permission... This constitutes a breach of Mr. Ai Weiwei’s copyright in respect of these images."

Ai representative Darryl Leung said in an email on Tuesday that the letter was authentic, and that no response had yet been received from Wishnow.

“We don’t know what the final resolution will be and we don’t know whether the film will be shown,” Leung wrote.

Wishnow, who previously worked as one of the creative minds behind the popular online lecture series TED Talks, did not immediately respond to Post requests for comment.

In a previous interview with the Post in early April, Wishnow said that he had met Ai in Beijing and the two had mutually agreed on the project as a "homage to science fiction films and Asian art house cinema".

According to Wishnow, Ai had been excited to partake in the film and had become particularly absorbed and invested in his character.

Award-winning Hong Kong-based cinematographer Christopher Doyle aided Wishow and Ai during the shoot, which took place over a few days in Beijing. Doyle described the project as a “very minimalistic, simple shooting process,” and Wishnow echoed this sentiment, calling it a "low-fi, sci-fi short, made in China under the radar".

Previously, Wishnow had been optimistic about releasing The Sandstorm in film festivals this summer and potentially returning to China to shoot a feature-length sequel.