A still from "The Sand Storm" Kickstarter video.
Earlier this month, news dropped about a dystopian sci-fi film short shot in Beijing and starring dissident architect Ai Weiwei, which, all told, sounded pretty fantastic. But things have since taken a strange turn: Lawyers representing Weiwei have filed a cease-and-desist to stop the release of the film, called "The Sand Storm," and want to kill off a Kickstarter aimed at funding the final editing of the piece.
At the time, it sounded like an awesome vehicle for Weiwei's acting debut. The Kickstarter behind-the-scenes video (which has since been mirrored on YouTube, and is embedded below) showed how it was shot with a small crew in Beijing and played up how the production crew didn't have permits, forcing them to shoot in secret in open locations in the city, while also avoiding Chinese officials tasked with keeping an eye on Weiwei.
Director Jason Wishnow described the scene in the Kickstarter:
"One of my first meetings with Ai Wei Wei was interrupted by plainclothes police interrogators whisking him away.
We told no one what we were up to. The crew used code names and ever-shifting modes of communication, tapping cloak-and-dagger pulp-fiction playbooks on loan from movies, novels, and late-night television."
The film's Kickstarter rocketed past its $33,000 goal, and had reached nearly $90,000 when, on Sunday night, Weiwei's camp had the Kickstarter wiped from the web, according to a Fast Company report. Fast Company also dug up a release from Weiwei's legal team, which includes a cease-and-desist they say they sent to Wishnow on April 23.
"We want to make it clear that Ai Weiwei does not approve of the way in which his image and involvement have been co-opted for promotional purposes," reads the release. "We believe that the promotion of the film has been misleading; both to Ai Weiwei as a participant and also to those who have helped fund the campaign."
Specifically, Weiwei's representative alleged a trio of copyright and contractual issues (all addressed to Wishnow):
• Your use of Ai Weiwei’s name and image is without his consent;
• Your use of Ai Weiwei’s copyrighted material (including Instagram images) is without his consent and in breach of copyright;
• You are engaging in misleading and deceptive conduct by soliciting to raise funds for a film which purports to “star” Ai Weiwei, however Ai Weiwei has not entered into any agreement or release permitting you to use his image in said film.
A note explaining the takedown on Kickstarter includes the same complaints.
While it's clear that Weiwei felt his image was not used fairly in the production, it's not clear what specifically happened. I emailed and called Wishnow today; I received an autoresponse email saying he's traveling, while calls to his cell were met with an automated message saying that the number in question is not currently accepting phone calls.
When I spoke with Wishnow for the orignal story, he said that he'd happened upon a chance meeting with Weiwei, and that the two hit it off well enough to immediately start talking about working on a project together. According to Wishnow, he whipped together a script about a water-scarce world, and Weiwei was completely on board to take the lead.
It was readily apparent in speaking with Wishnow that Weiwei's name and image was a big part of the film. "Ai Weiwei has a very complicated relationship with the government in China," he said. "While we didn't set out to make a politically charged film, people might assume that's the case by virtue of his presence. So we were especially mindful of working in that type of environment."
Wishnow also said that the film was already shot, and that an initial edit was almost done, which would be funded retroactively by the Kickstarter.
While it's not clear what sort of specific deal Wishnow had worked out with Weiwei, there's no doubt that he agreed in some fashion to be a part of the film, as his comments in the Kickstarter video attest to. However, it sounds like it was largely a handshake deal in which Weiwei didn't expect to play a huge part. If I hear from Wishnow with information to the contrary, I'll update the story, but right now it would appear that whatever deal was struck did not include a contract for using Weiwei's name and image to propel a $90,000 Kickstarter.