Professor Wenhwa Tsao
Wenhwa Tsao, an award-winning filmmaker and educator, has a myriad of fascinating stories to tell, one of which is how she was first introduced to film. Born and raised in Taiwan, Tsao grew up impoverished with undiagnosed dyslexia, which cost her the opportunity to be properly educated. At age 17 she was attending a home economics school when she met a Catholic priest who offered a course in Super 8 filmmaking. Although Tsao had only been exposed to Chinese propaganda films as a child, she was intrigued by the silver screen and immediately seized the opportunity to explore the craft.
We don’t choose our graduate students based solely on the work they did as an undergrad, or on their level of technical proficiency. Instead, we select people who have stories to tell.
Unafraid to tackle difficult subjects, Tsao made her first film about the relationship of a lesbian couple living in rural Taiwan. Although controversial, the film helped those around her realize how serious she was about filmmaking. The priest encouraged her to pursue a film education in the United States, where her educational needs could be more easily fulfilled. “I wanted to do something to influence other people’s lives with my films,” says Tsao, “and the Catholic Church father told me if I went to the U.S. to study, I would find a different education system that would allow me to get an advanced degree despite my dyslexia.”
Tsao flourished in the States, studying photography at the University of Oregon and then receiving a full scholarship to pursue an MFA degree in Photography and Film at Virginia Commonwealth University. Tsao explored teaching during graduate school and after instructing for several years at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, she secured a full-time position at Columbia College Chicago as an Associate Professor in the Film & Video Department.
I think our graduate students are often surprised by how many opportunities they have in this MFA program. Almost every weekend there’s a film shoot and students are constantly working on a set.
Tsao was drawn to Columbia because of its holistic approach to admissions. “We don’t choose our graduate students based solely on the work they did as an undergrad, or on their level of technical proficiency. Instead, we select people who have stories to tell,” she asserts. The technical skills required to support a student’s creative passion can be developed during their filmmaking studies and no prior experience is necessary. “I think our graduate students are often surprised by how many opportunities they have in this MFA program,” says Tsao, “almost every weekend there’s a film shoot and students are constantly working on a set. This allows them to gain practical, hands-on experience outside of classrooms.”
In addition to teaching and serving as Graduate Program Director, Tsao still finds time to make her own films. Her recent work includes “Nova,” a sci-fi film about a mad scientist who creates a cyborg daughter to love him, and “Dumplings,” a film about a mother’s fear of her grown daughter wanting to go back and find her birth mother. Currently, Tsao is fundraising for “Snakehead,” a feature length drama about human trafficking. She explains, “My work focuses on issues related to the Chinese American experience, especially the immigrant experience. I write stories that I can relate to and that I care about.” Supported by fellowships, grants and educational institutions Tsao’s work has screened in festivals and showcases across the world, including in the United States, France, Canada, Romania, Mexico, Ecuador, the Netherlands, Korea as well as in her home country, China.