Lo-Fi Sci-Fi: 'Secret' Film 'The Sand Storm' Stars Toxic Air and Ai Weiwei

The Chinese dissident makes his acting debut playing a water smuggler in a dystopian, futuristic Beijing.
Apr 9, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

The world’s most dangerous man can add another line to his résumé: movie star. Despite government scrutiny, famed Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei makes his acting debut in The Sand Storm, a 10-minute film set in a dystopian future world without water.

In the film, Ai portrays a water smuggler who trades his priceless cargo on the black market. Writer and director Jason Wishnow came up with the idea for the film after heading to Beijing for a creative sabbatical. He got in contact with Ai through mutual TED connections.

Wishnow has made films for TED Talks, and Ai landed himself in hot water in 2011 after he smuggled a recorded talk to the organizers of the annual conference, which has spread noteworthy ideas since 1990. Ai's talk detailed the lack of social and political freedom Chinese people experience. As a result, his passport was revoked, and government cameras are focused on his home.

In the promo clip above, Ai says the film is really about information. It’s a telling comment, given that much of the persecution Ai has faced is due to his criticism of China’s refusal to allow unlimited access to outside media and websites.

Cannes award winner Christopher Doyle was the film's cinematographer, and while he’s undeniably skilled at setting an eerie mood, the smoggy backdrop isn’t the result of special effects. In recent years Beijing’s smog situation has been so awful that residents sometimes can’t see the sky. In January officials put a fake image of the sun on an LED billboard.

“When the air is toxic and your lead actor is under surveillance, you make a SHORT film and you shoot it FAST,” writes Wishnow on the film’s Kickstarter page. The money raised will take care of postproduction costs, and Wishnow says he hopes to turn the short into a feature-length film.

As for what the Chinese government will think about The Sand Storm—and whether it will crack down even further on Ai—Wishnow told the Los Angeles Times that he “wasn't setting out to make a film that's an overt political statement, a message-y film.” However, “given the scope of the subject matter and who one of the stars is…I maintained a degree of discretion to avoid the discomfort of constantly having to explain that.”