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Sci-fi film under fire for billing Ai Weiwei as lead actor without consent

Ai Weiwei is distancing himself from The Sand Storm, a science-fiction film that has been using his name and likeness to promote its Kickstarter campaign.

The Chinese dissident artist agreed to appear in the film in what he thought was "a minor role." But when the filmmakers started to refer to Ai as the film's star, and use his Instagram photos in promotional materials without his permission, Ai's representatives issued a cease-and-desist order, halting the film's production indefinitely. The campaign has since been removed from the Kickstarter website (a cached version from April 7 can be found here).

The Sand Storm (沙尘暴) is a 10-minute dystopian short set in a not-too-distant Chinese future. Ai plays a water smuggler in a world without water — although as he puts it in the Kickstarter video, "It's not really about water. It's really about information." The film was shot in Beijing over two weeks for a reported $33,000.

Jason Wishnow, the film's writer/director (and former head of video for the TED Talks lecture series), said he chose Beijing for the "creative solitude" of being in an unfamiliar city with limited Internet access. He claims he pitched the film to Ai within an hour of their first meeting. He then brought on Christopher Doyle, the Australian cinematographer who shot In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express, to make the "dim and gritty" sets look beautiful.

Shooting conditions were both harsh and secretive. Facing high smog and freezing temperatures, the local cast and crew demanded cash payments up front. Ai was also under close government scrutiny — a fact that Wishnow later played up to amplify the hype of The Sand Storm being "a secret sci-fi film," shot guerrilla-style without permits or authorization.

Ai is perhaps China's most internationally well-known artist, and one of China's most celebrated revolutionary poets. But in 2011, after publicly criticizing the government, Ai was secretly detained by police for 81 days with no specified charges, then placed under house arrest and prohibited from leaving the country. His design firm was issued a $2.4 million tax bill, which Ai challenged unsuccessfully in court.

Ai is now claiming Wishnow misrepresented his role in the film, both during production and in the subsequent fundraising efforts on Kickstarter, which raised over $62,000 in pledged support before getting shut down. Since the film has not been released, it is unclear whether Ai's role as the water smuggler was truly minor, or if he was duped into playing a starring role without his knowledge. Either way, Ai claims he was unfairly exploited, and is demanding Wishnow issue a public apology.

Will The Sand Storm ever see the light of day? The fate of the film is hardly certain. But its stalled release raises further questions about Kickstarter — a website that's no stranger to ethical conundrums — and the responsibilities a director has to their actors and collaborators.

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