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The Sand Storm

A sci-fi dystopian tale set in Beijing during a water shortage. Starring Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, the short led to some controversies during its development.

2014 | 5 - 10 | China | Dystopia | Sci-Fi | Special FX

There are many interesting facts about The Sand Storm. First of all, the protagonist is Ai Weiwei, one of the most important artists in the world- his presence, however, led to some controversies. In addition, director Jason Wishnow has been the director of the TEDTalks for years, and is considered to be one of the most important  figures in the world of digital filmmaking. The film was shot in secret in the midst of a pollution alarm that forced the entire crew to wear anti-smog masks – at freezing temperatures. Among other things, the Kickstarter campaign for the short was the third most profitable in the history of the site. Actually, there have been two different campaigns. In short, the realization of this short was troubled, so let’s start from the beginning.

In 2013, after six years at the helm of TEDTalks, Jason Wishnow decided to take a break and go to China, in Beijing. During this time he got to meet Ai Weiwei in his studio. The two had already had contact when, in 2009, the artist’s TEDTalk had to be smuggled out of the country. Wishnow had been developing the ‘The Sand Storm’ project for a while, and the idea of ​​a film that used water shortages as a metaphor for the lack of real information and reporting in China caught the attention of Ai Weiwei, who agreed to take part in it. Filming was shot in secret near the artist’s studio in the district of Caochangdi. Despite the hostile environmental conditions (cold weather and pollution levels beyond any safety thresholds), and the difficulty in circumventing Chinese authorities, everything went smooth, in such a relaxed atmosphere that Weiwei also enjoyed acting as a ‘barber’ for the crew, as demonstrated by the director’s photos.

But when, during post-production, money began to dwindle, Wishnow decided to start a Kickstarter campaign, announcing the short-dystopian science fiction and citing the artist as a protagonist. And here is where things start to get complicated: Ai Weiwei didn’t like the way in which his image and his name were used to promote the film. In a few days a cease and desist letter was released (it’s still available online), and the Kickstarter campaign was suspended. Alarmed, Wishnow left immediately for China, where he had the opportunity to meet again with the artist and clarify things. Shortly after the campaign was re-launched, accompanied by a long public apology from the director: misunderstandings, communication difficulties, all in a (declared) good faith were the reasons behind this impasse. The apology, however, proved convincing, and with 2,045 supporters and 101.065 dollars raised (after an initial goal of 33,000), The Sand Storm became the third most supported short ever. The Chinese artist has not released further comments on the matter.

The film was completed and premiered at the Telluride Film Festival last week, and had been released online immediately after, as the director had initially planned.

The tagline of the movie talks about a dystopian sci-fi story set in a city on the brink of a water shortage,  during which a human tragedy takes place, as seen through the eyes of four main characters: a woman, a man, lover, and a water smuggler. That’s exactly what goes on in the short: a water trafficker (Ai Wei Wei) accidentally witnesses a fight between a couple – and the man’s lover- and then moves on, facing an attempted robbery of his water reserves among chaos in the streets. The story is not elaborate, but it is rich in symbolism.

It is no coincidence that the artist stars a as a secret water smuggler – and that he leads his co-star to the last resource standing: if water becomes a metaphor for information, it’s like Weiwei was playing himself. He has engaged in a fight against the Chinese government about censorship and freedom of information for years – as well documented in Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and The Fake Case. Wearing a uniform that’s equally reminiscent of Mad Max’s cyberpunk style and Chinese workers’s attire, he drives a tuk-tuk that becomes a vehicle of salvation (figuratively and literally).

The problem of water is, however, also real and present. Beijing is a perfect set for a grim, dystopian future, in which mankind has exhausted its resources. The smoky, gray atmosphere has not been obtained in post-production, the alarming level of pollution ‘gifted’ the director with this actual doomsday scenario. It’s a real drama, a tangible one: the masks worn by the characters aren’t stage props, everyone was forced to wear them – in front of and behind the camera. The ecological emergency is palpable, and speaks for itself.

The cinematography (helmed by veteran Christopher Doyle, already responsible for such films as In the mood for love) is impeccable, the desaturated tones and the yellowish soot that surrounds everything and everyone is an integral part of the story. Narration is not the strong suit of this short, whereas it lies in the visual and emotional impact achieved through the aforementioned cold tones and the undeniable stage presence of the artist, who does not need to talk to impose huge symbolic baggage that accompanies him.

Jason Wishnow has directed several narrative shorts, has been the video director for TEDTalks for years and is regarded as one of the pioneers of online video, having founded The New Venue, one of the first film websites launched in the 90s, many years before the advent of Youtube.

Flavia Ferrucci

Flavia Ferrucci

Flavia Ferrucci

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