It was supposed to be Ai Weiwei's acting debut: A 10-minute short film depicting a future China without water. In "The Sandstorm," the dissident artist was to play a smuggler carefully navigating his way through an arid, dystopian universe.

But rather than spark a debate about resources and government authority, the project has blown up into a dispute over copyright and crowdfunding, as Ai downplayed his role in the film Monday. Through his representatives, Ai claimed he'd agreed only to a small part in the movie.

The Kickstarter campaign promoting "The Sandstorm" goes much further, portraying Ai as the star. The crowdfunding page — which has been taken down, but a cached version is available here — explains how the filmmaker, Jason Wishnow, secretly recruited Ai to a two-week production session during which the crew "used code names and ever-shifting modes of communication, tapping cloak-and-dagger pulp-fiction playbooks" to avoid alerting Chinese authorities to their work.

"When the air is toxic and your lead actor is under surveillance, you make a SHORT film and you shoot it FAST," the project page reads.

Despite now being blocked from public view, the Kickstarter has already exceeded its $33,000 goal by more than $60,000. That's little comfort to Ai, though, who accuses Wishnow of stealing his name and image — as well as photos Ai posted to Instagram — to promote the movie.


"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," a letter tweeted by Ai to the filmmaker, Jason Wishnow, reads.

The incident underscores how Ai has become something of a commodity: Critics of the trend lament the way Ai's face has been plastered on trinkets and bought and sold as a cheap political statement. (The fact that Ai himself has tweeted about it suggests he identifies somewhat with the argument.)


It's not clear whether Ai views Wishnow as just another individual seeking to capitalize on the artist's brand. But the forcefulness of his letter leaves no doubt about his feeling seriously misled.