Ai Weiwei Plays Vaguely Steampunk Water Smuggler in New Sci-Fi Movie

This post has been updated.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has staged shows in just about every major metropolitan city in the world (his latest just opened in Berlin). He designed Beijing's iconic "Bird's Nest" stadium for the 2008 Olympics -- then proceeded to denounce it. Thanks in part to his efforts to expose how state corruption contributed to the massive death toll in the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province, Chinese authorities have targeted him for surveillance and arrest. Hell, he's even an FP Global Thinker. Now, he can add another line to his resume: movie star.

Playing a water smuggler in a world without the stuff, Ai stars in the forthcoming ten minute sci-fi short The Sand Storm. The film is directed by Jason Wishnow -- the former head of video at web conference heavyweight TED -- and features Ai in what seems like a fitting concept for the artist: a dystopian flick that examines the consequences of extreme climate scenarios. Ai, it turns out, was born to play a steampunk water smuggler:

With shooting complete, Wishnow has launched a Kickstarter page for the film and is hoping to raise $33,000 to cover production expenses and an upcoming marketing effort. Filmed in Beijing against that city's smoky, polluted skies, veteran cinematographer Christopher Doyle -- perhaps best known for his work on Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love -- shot the film, and his distinctive aesthetic is present in the snippets so far made available:

According to Wishnow, the film was shot in extreme secrecy and with a tight deadline. "When the air is toxic and your lead actor is under surveillance, you make a SHORT film and you shoot it FAST," Wishnow writes on the film's Kickstarter page. "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."

But as Wishnow explains on the page, his star wasn't too happy about that situation and posted an Instagram photo of the production *:

In other words, this isn't really a film that the Chinese authorities didn't want made. Surely the Chinese authorities monitor Ai's Instagram feed and his communications intensely. Had they vehemently opposed the production, they could have just picked him up and thrown him in jail.

But that doesn't particularly matter for the purposes of this film: Wishnow would like you, the consumer, to think that this is a film the Chinese authorities didn't want made.

Art critics frequently argue that as an artist Ai underwhelms and that his global celebrity really comes from his ability to meld his artwork with his political activism, which can only be described as brave, committed, and principled. But as a result of his dual role as an artist and a celebrity activist, Ai stands at the forefront of what might be called the dissident-chic aesthetic. And as attendance figures at Ai's shows and the global popularity of a band like Pussy Riot (whose music is terrible) illustrate, it's a sensibility in high demand.

Taken together, artists such as Ai and Pussy Riot have come to stand for a set of values that deeply appeal, especially to young people: anti-state, nonconformist, radical, and amorphously left-wing.

Based on what little we know about Wishnow's film, it appears to line up quite nicely with those values. It will probably do quite well. In 2014, striking back at the surveillance state still sells.

*This post has been updated to include the Instagram photo posted by Ai Weiwei from the set of The Sand Storm. An earlier version of this post stated that the photograph appeared to have been deleted. (Return to reading.)



The Audacity of Hopelessness: Why Bashar al-Assad Will Cruise to Victory

BEIRUT -- Ever since the Assad family began counting the votes in Syria, it has amassed a series of electoral victories that can't be matched by any surviving Middle Eastern political dynasty. During his three decades in power, Hafez al-Assad won five presidential elections, each time winning 99 or 100 percent of the vote. And in 2000, a referendum approved Bashar al-Assad's ascension to the presidency by a 97 percent margin; particularly fervent supporters pricked their fingers to mark their ballots in blood as a sign of loyalty. In 2007, Assad won 98 percent of the votes in his re-election campaign, leading the United States to sarcastically congratulate him on "his ability to have defeated exactly zero other candidates."

This summer, Assad will almost certainly stand for re-election to another seven-year term as president despite an ongoing civil war that has left hundreds of thousands dead and destabilized much of the Middle East. The signs of Syria's coming election season are everywhere: The parliament recently approved a new election law that will exclude members of the opposition, top government officials have publicly endorsed Assad's candidacy, and security forces and pro-Assad paramilitary forces have asked shopkeepers in Damascus to paint their stores' metal shutters the colors of the Syrian flag to give the capital a patriotic hue.

Assad himself has even made public appearances geared toward presenting himself as a force for stability and order in Syria. Last month, he visited the town of Adra, near the fiercely contested suburbs east of Damascus, to meet with Syrians displaced by the fighting. Syrian state television footage of the visit shows Assad consoling families and promising to exert all possible efforts to find kidnapped relatives or securing much-needed medicine. "We wanted to salute you in order to say that the state is for everyone; it is for all Syrians," he told a cheering crowd. "Every one of you is a son of the state."

Assad's opponents will surely dismiss the elections as a bad joke. But supporters of the Syrian government believe Assad now finds himself in his strongest position to date since the beginning of the uprising -- and see the election as a way to underscore that the political structures dominated by Assad are still in place, and have survived the three-year insurgency.

"[Assad's] message is that the country needs healing, it needs a new political process; and he will probably carry this political process," said Kamel Wazne, the founder of the Center of American Strategic Studies, a Beirut-based think tank concerned with the Middle East. "The country needs reconstruction; he will lead this reconstruction of the country."

Wazne pointed to the Syrian government's gains in the mountainous Qalamoun region bordering Lebanon, in the city of Homs, and in the Damascus suburbs as examples of how Assad has regained the military advantage over his enemies. The regional and international environment also looks bright for the Syrian strongman: Wazne says that tensions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar were hindering cooperation between two of the rebels' most important patrons, while the showdown between the United States and Russia in Ukraine was virtually certain to further strengthen Moscow's support for Assad. "Before the election, you're probably going to see most of the country being under the control of the Syrian army," he said.

The Syrian government's ability to hold a vote in large swathes of the country, then, could serve as a high-profile reminder of Assad's continued reach -- and the increasing likelihood that he'll prevail in Syria's brutal civil war. And with the possibility that multiple candidates could run for the presidency, some government supporters insist that the days of securing victories in the high 90 percent range are over.

"These are the first elections in Syria," said Elias Farhat, a retired Lebanese army general. The referendums in 2000 and 2007 that confirmed Assad as president, he argued, were different -- by not allowing voters an alternative, they all but guaranteed that Assad would win a massive majority. He pointed to the January constitutional referendum in Egypt, which passed with 98 percent of the vote, as evidence that such votes largely achieved overwhelming support. "In all over the world, not just in Syria, any referendum starts with more than 90 percent...if you don't agree, you don't go [vote]," he said, though most election experts would likely disagree.

It still remains unclear who would emerge as even a token challenger to Assad. The election law requires that candidates have lived in Syria for 10 consecutive years, disqualifying opposition members who were driven into exile.

Whoever else runs, nobody is predicting that the Assad clan's string of seven straight presidential victories since Hafez al-Assad seized power in a 1970 military coup is about to be broken. While Assad's enemies jeer the upcoming election and his allies hope it will restore a measure of legitimacy to the regime, others have reacted with little more than a shrug.

"I fearlessly predict there will not be much of a race and he'll win handily, surprising no one and restoring none of his vanished governing legitimacy," said Fred Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former top State Department official on Syria. "Besides, if his gunners and barrel bombers get the day off to vote it would be a good thing for a lot of children and their parents."