Cinema and Television Arts
Wenhwa Ts’ao believes in stories and teaches students how to tell theirs.
Wenhwa Ts’ao, an award-winning filmmaker and professor in Columbia’s Cinema Art and Science program, has a slew of fascinating stories to tell, one of which is how she was introduced to film.
Coming to America
Born and raised in Taiwan, Ts’ao grew up impoverished and with undiagnosed dyslexia, which cost her the opportunity to be properly educated. At age 17, she met a Catholic priest who offered a course in Super 8 filmmaking. Although Ts’ao 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.
Unafraid to tackle difficult subjects, Ts’ao made her first film about the relationship of a lesbian couple living in rural Taiwan. Although controversial, the film helped those around her realize that she was serious about filmmaking. The priest encouraged Ts’ao to pursue a film education in the United States, where she received a BA in photography, then received a full scholarship to pursue an MFA degree in Photography and Film at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Driven by Stories
At Columbia, Ts’ao teaches foundations classes to freshmen and transfer students, as well as graduate directing courses.
“I love our student body,” she says. “I especially enjoy teaching them when they’re first coming in because they’re so open to experimenting. I’m always inspired by their passion.”
For graduate students, Ts’ao is more of a mentor than a teacher. “We don’t choose our graduate students based solely on the work they did as an undergrad, or on their level of technical proficiency,” she says. “Instead, we select people who have stories to tell.” Ts’ao helps students find the best ways to tell those stories.
In addition to teaching, Ts’ao still finds time to make her own films. Her sci-fi film Nova (made with help from Taiwanese Culture University) centers on a geneticist who creates a cyborg daughter to love him. Snakehead, a film about sex trafficking, earned first place in the Las Vegas International Film Festival, Cinema City International Film Festival, and Indie Producer.
“My work focuses on issues related to the Chinese-American experience, especially the immigrant experience,” she says. “You can’t stop human beings from pursuing a better life for themselves.”