A Thai Filmmaker Returns to Columbia to Teach

Anocha Suwichakornpong is now a professor at School of the Arts, where she earned her MFA in film.

Eve Glasberg
March 28, 2023

Anocha Suwichakornpong is a filmmaker who lives and works in Bangkok and the U.S. Her movies have been screened at film festivals such as Cannes, Sundance, Berlin, Locarno, and Rotterdam. She joined the Film Program at the School of the Arts in the fall of 2022 as a professor of film directing.

 Suwichakornpong’s work, informed by the socio-political history of Thailand, has received much international critical acclaim and has been the subject of retrospectives at the Museum of the Moving Image, New York and TIFF Cinematheque, Toronto. She founded the Bangkok-based production company, Electric Eel Films, to nurture works by emerging talents from Thailand and abroad, and co-founded Purin Pictures, a film fund that supports and promotes independent Southeast Asian cinema. 

Columbia News asks Suwichakornpong about her work, how she merges movie-making with teaching, and what guidance she can offer to those who want a similar professional life.

How does it feel to be back at Columbia, as an alum of the same program you're now teaching in?

It feels good, if still a bit surreal, even though it’s my second semester already. It’s hard to describe the sensation of walking around the same building, the same corridors I walked when I was a student here 20 years ago. Now I’m a faculty member. It constantly makes me think about the passage of time, and how cyclical time can (or, at least, appear to) be.

How do you divide your time between New York and Bangkok? Where does most of your creative filmmaking work get done? 

I’m in New York for most of the academic year, and I go to Thailand for the winter and summer breaks. I can do my creative work anywhere. Making a film can be a long, elaborate process. There’s research and writing, among other things, that go into the work before you begin shooting. Post-production workflow is also much more fluid now since the pandemic started and everyone had to adapt to a new way of working. It’s just the shooting of a film that requires you to stay put in one place for an extended period. 

How does the intersection of teaching and making movies affect you? Is there much of an overlap?

It may sound like a cliché, but I enjoy seeing student films. I share with my students everything I have learned in my filmmaking practice. Being with them and seeing how they engage with the medium keeps me invigorated. 

What are you working on now? 

A feature film that deals with nationalism in Thailand. It centers on a woman who is an eyewitness to the collapses of the three kingdoms of Siam/Thailand. It is my biggest film to date in terms of the production scale, and also it’s the first time I’m doing a period film, so I’ve been doing quite a bit of research—with much more to do—on Thai history.

What are you teaching this semester? 

I’m teaching two film-directing classes—one for the first-year MFA students, and the other one for the second-year students. These are small workshop classes where students learn about the art of directing and get to shoot some short scenes as assignments. I’m also continuing my thesis advisement class for the third-year students from last semester.

What was your path to a career in filmmaking?

It was quite straightforward. I was lucky to have success with my Columbia thesis film, which went to Cannes, Sundance, and many other film festivals. I was able to use that momentum to get my first feature off the ground. This movie, which was small and had a modest budget, also did well. By this time, I had started a small production company in Bangkok to produce my own work as well as my friends’ film projects. That company, Electric Eel Films, has been running for almost 16 years now. I feel blessed to be able to do what I love. I tell myself that every day, and to never take things for granted. 

Advice for anyone who wants to pursue a career in movie-making?

You have to love movies, almost to the point of obsession. But stay clear-headed, and be interested and engaged in things that are outside showbiz or the industry, too. It’s hard to make a good film and have a career in filmmaking if you don’t have a strong or compelling point-of-view to share with the world. 

What's the best part of teaching at School of the Arts and Columbia? 

I get to be in a richly creative environment and meet and work with people with such diverse backgrounds, each one of us bringing our own experiences, stories, and voices to share with the community. And, of course, being in a place like New York, where you can feel the pulsating energy of the city, certainly helps!