This Is Who We Are: Professor Anocha Suwichakornpong

Carlos Barragán
November 18, 2022

This Is Who We Are is a series featuring Columbia School of the Arts’ professors, covering careers, pedagogy, and art-making. Here, we talk with Film Professor and alumna Anocha Suwichakornpong '06 about her career, the secrets behind a good character and the most overrated idea in cinema.

After reading some of her interviews, I already knew that Associate Professor Anocha Suwichakornpong was a thoughtful artist who took her viewer very seriously. “People who say they don’t understand the movie are actually those who want to understand it, which is good. It’s better than those who don’t think about it at all,” she said to TimeOut. During my conversation with Anocha, however, I learned an even more profound truth: modesty more than often precedes great art.

Anocha Suwichakornpong is a Thai independent film director, producer, screenwriter, and professor at the School of the Arts. In her movies, she enjoys pushing the boundaries of film aesthetics and form to reflect on Thailand and its history. In 2006, she co-founded the production company, Electric Eel Films, which has been widely recognized for its national contribution to identifying emerging talents from Thailand and the region.

Anocha grew up in Pattaya. At 14, she moved to England, where she got her Bachelor of Arts. It was at the University of Warwick where she received an MA in Arts Education and Cultural Studies, sharpening her interest in filmmaking. In 2006, she got her MFA from Columbia University School of the Arts, where she received the renowned Hollywood Foreign Press Association Fellowship.

Her thesis film, Graceland (2006), is a short about a man and a mysterious woman exploring Bangkok throughout one night. It was a strong and forceful debut that premiered at the 59th Cannes Film Festival and was the first Thai short to be selected at the prestigious venue. It was also featured in the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. In 2008, she was chosen to participate in the Talent Campus at Berlin Film Festival. Though those achievements propelled her career, Anocha preferred to focus on how she learned through all the obstacles she faced during the project.

“The paradox is that my thesis film had a lot of production problems. The more important one was related to a faulty camera. 80 or 90% of the shots had a mysterious blue tint. We couldn’t believe it,” she said. “There was also a malfunction with the shutter button. The light kept leaking into the film. I remember being in the testing room with my DP [director of photography], and he was banging his head on the wall. When the news came, we were so busy trying to finish the movie. But that’s how you become a better filmmaker.”

Anocha’s debut feature was Mundane History (2009), a movie set in Thailand’s class-based society about a young paralyzed man from a wealthy Bangkok family who becomes friends with his male nurse from the north of Thailand. It won numerous awards, including the Tiger Award at the 2010 International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Her most awarded movie, however, is By the Time it Gets Dark (2016), a film focused on the student massacre in 1976 by far-right paramilitaries and Thai state forces. It premiered in Locarno and was screened in over 50 film festivals. The film also won three Thailand National Film Awards and was chosen as the Thai entry for the Best Foreign Language film at the 90th Oscar Academy Awards. At the film’s press conference, Anocha said that she considered this film her love letter to cinema.

If there's one question Anocha doesn’t like in film interviews, it's “What is your movie about?” Instead, I asked her what drives her to make movies. “When I’m making a film it is more about what I want to learn, what I want to investigate,” she said. “My films are still narrative, though many people say they're not. I think of them as narrative films. Of course, they don’t conform to people’s ideas of how a narrative film should be. But I find narratives in almost every movie. If you have characters, there’s always a narrative for me. I'm more interested in characters and human behaviors rather than plots. I don’t believe in the development of the plot.”

Anocha’s movies are constantly circling back to her country. “I couldn’t write and make movies exclusively about New York or the United States. I felt it acutely when I arrived here; I didn’t know the culture and couldn’t write good dialogue. But I could write about Thailand, I was always thinking about Thailand,” she said. 

In fact, the project Anocha is currently working on spans centuries and deals with different kingdoms of Thailand, focusing on a woman who lives across time and is a witness to the collapse of three kingdoms of Siam (former Thailand). “I have this one character who seems to live across time, but there’s not much plot progression. The movie is not about that. I’m more interested in how nationalism disguises itself differently in different periods. I staged a live performance in March for the first time. Two actors performed a small segment of my project to a live audience at the Art Center in Minneapolis. I’m trying to find platforms to explore the art of storytelling.”

“What makes a good character?” I asked Anocha during a follow up call. The question had been burning in me since meeting Anocha and her work. 

“This is something I learned from Milena Jelinek, a wonderful screenwriting professor I had at Columbia University, who sadly passed away two years ago. She said the character’s actions do not drive the film. What drives the story is the character's dreams. I don’t mind if my movies are less narrative than others, but my characters always have a dream that makes them move—or not—towards somewhere.”

“And what are your characters dreaming about?”

“I can’t tell you that,” she replied, bursting into laughter. Fair enough.

In 2017, alongside Aditya Assarat, Anocha co-founded Purin Pictures, a film fund that supports independent cinema in Southeast Asia. “It’s not just in Thailand, but also in Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia. This is a big part of what I do, and I love it.” The program covers film production, film post-production and film-related activities in a region that, as the co-founders state on the Purin Pictures website, lacks adequate governmental support.

The conversation moved to teaching, where Anocha—who’s advising the Film thesis at the School and teaching ‘Directing I’—has plenty of experience. “I’m fascinated with the thirst for knowledge I’ve found here at Columbia. It’s good to enter a room with film students and not over explain things because they already know. They are here to learn more, and that pushes you. I was on the jury of the film festival’s past edition and, to be honest, I was very impressed with the quality of the films the students made. Frankly, they are way better than what we did.”

As it sometimes happens, the most challenging interview moment came at the end. I threw a question at Anocha, and she spent 20 seconds thinking about the answer as consciously as possible.

“What is the most underrated piece of advice in filmmaking? 

“Oh my god…” she grinned. “Sound in films is completely underrated. In film schools, the sound is always second to the visuals and the pictures. That’s an area that, as filmmakers, we could lean in more”.

“And the most overrated?”

“Active protagonist. Again, what drives the story forward is not the character’s actions but their dreams,” she said. “When someone tells you: that character is not doing anything, I always tell them: “Look closer, they’re not doing anything on the surface, but maybe there’s something else that drives the story.”

Anocha Suwichakornpong is an independent filmmaker who lives and works in Bangkok and the U.S. Her films have been screened at festivals such as Cannes, Sundance, Berlin, Locarno, and Rotterdam. Anocha’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. This film fund supports and promotes independent Southeast Asian cinema. Anocha is a recipient of the 2019 Prince Claus Laureate, DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Residency, and the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Residency Program. She has taught filmmaking at Harvard University and Mahidol University.