Ai Weiwei has been a highly sought-after subject for documentary filmmakers, but never before has the bombastic Chinese artist taken up the actor's mantle.
The Sandstorm, a short film crowd-funded on Kickstarter , stars Ai as a water smuggler in a movie that is being heralded as a metaphor for life in a city suffering both ecological and informational desertification.
Described as a "low-fi, sci-fi short, made in China under the radar", The Sandstorm is directed and written by American Jason Wishnow, one of the creative forces behind the popular online TED Talks lecture series, to which Ai contributed a self-made video about Chinese censorship in 2011.
Watch: Ai Weiwei new film's kickstarted video
After coming to China early last year on a "self-imposed writing retreat", Wishnow went into creative overdrive, seeking out Ai for a personal meeting.
"Ai Weiwei has an incredibly imposing and awe-inspiring presence, both in the art he creates and in his persona," Wishnow said. "An hour into our first conversation, he asked me, 'What can we do together?'"
Wishnow wrote the screenplay, and after showing it to an approving Ai and assembling a crew, a whirlwind two-week shoot commenced.
Shot in Beijing with dialogue in Putonghua, The Sandstorm features cinematography by Christopher Doyle , the Australian filmmaker best known for his camera work for legendary Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai in Chungking Express (1994) and Happy Together (1997).
Scripted as a 10-minute short, the movie portrays a futuristic China where potable water is as scarce as reliable information.
"It's not really [a story] about water," Ai says in the film's promotional Kickstarter video. "It's really about information."
"Ai and I were talking about the word 'flow' and we thought it was interesting how the word is used to describe both information and water," Wishnow explains. "So we decided to tell a story about a world where both of those things are very scarce."
Wishnow describes Ai’s acting skills as “mesmerising,” and adds that the artist became particularly invested in his character, a water smuggler who has “a commanding presence but also a whimsical side”.
The director also cites Beijing’s smoggy neighbourhoods as the perfect setting for the short’s dystopian themes.
“The movie is a homage to science fiction films and Asian art house cinema,” Wishnow said. “And it was inspired by Beijing itself, a fascinating experiment in urban and social planning, with smog, hutongs and so many distinct elements.”
All principle photography for The Sandstorm was completed in January 2013, and the final version of the film is slated for a summer release date.
Only a week into its Kickstarter campaign, the short has already raised over US$60,000, and Wishnow plans to use these funds to cover the cost of post-production and distribution.
The director is also optimistic about creating a feature-length sequel to The Sandstorm.
“I would love to return to China to film it,” Wishnow says. “China’s so complicated… The first time I went there, I felt like I was witnessing the industrial revolution and the internet revolution simultaneously.”