Star Turn for Ai Weiwei in Science Fiction Movie

The artist shows off his acting (and haircutting) skills.

Ai Wei Wei as a smuggler in the science fiction movie The Sandstorm.
Ai Weiwei gives cinematographer Christopher Doyle a haircut. Courtesy Jason Wishnow.

Ai Weiwei gives cinematographer Christopher Doyle a haircut.
Courtesy Jason Wishnow.

When Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei agreed to be in The Sandstorm (沙尘暴), a 10-minute sci-fi thriller directed by the former head of video for TED Talks Jason Wishnow, the filmmaker didn’t realize it would entail hair loss.

“Ai Weiwei really likes to cut hair,” Wishnow told artnet News over the phone from Los Angeles. “When we were working on the film, he kept saying to Chris and to me, ‘I really want to cut your hair,’ said Wishnow about the film’s Australian cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, known for his work on the award-winning films In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express. (Doyle also was the cinematographer for Ai’s heavy metal music video Dumbass (2013), which happens to feature Ai’s young son giving his father a haircut.)

“Well, I’ll only do it if Chris does it,” Wishnow recalled saying. “And Chris said, ‘I’ll only do it if Jason does it.’”

The opportunity arose just before the final take: Ai sat them both down, pulled out an electric razor, and took about half off the side for each, clean to the scalp. “He wound up giving us mirror-image haircuts,” said Wishnow.

When Wishnow first encountered the artist in person, Ai Weiwei was doing the horse-trotting dance through his courtyard in the arts district of Caochangdi in Beijing. “They [Ai’s team] were finishing filming the Gangnam Style parody video,” said Wishnow. That was a little over a year ago, soon after Wishnow had left his job at TED. The filmmaker had already had prior contact with people at Ai’s studio when he was given the hard drive that contained Ai’s TED Talk, which after being recorded in China had to be snuck out of the country.

In the film, the artist plays a water delivery man. Because Ai Weiwei has been under surveillance by the Chinese government since 2009, filming took place somewhat discreetly in Beijing, so as not to draw too much attention to the artist, and specifically on the smoggiest days. “When the air is toxic and your lead actor is under surveillance,” Wishnow wrote on the page of his Kickstarter campaign, “you make a short film and you shoot it fast.”

The campaign aims to raise US$33,000 by May 3. At press time, 300 backers had contributed just over $17,000. The crowd-funded cash will go towards visual effects, sound design, music, subtitles, and other production costs, targeting a June release for backers.

Though the haircuts have since grown in, the moment was preserved for posterity. A short video of Ai giving the cuts will be revealed tomorrow at 3 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on the film’s Kickstarter page, along with other surprises for backers. The timing of the campaign couldn’t be better. On April 18, “Ai Weiwei: According to What?,” the artist’s solo show at the Brooklyn Museum, opens to the public.

“He has this larger than life presence,” said Wishnow, remembering how he felt during the filming.

“Getting a haircut, as simple as it may seem, was a monumental experience for Chris and for me,” Wishnow said. “The next time I saw Chris [after Ai cut our hair] was months later. We both admitted we kept these haircuts for months after. We were walking around with priceless un-removable works of art on our heads.”

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