The renowned Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul became fascinated as a young boy by the sounds and moving images his mother, a physician, could conjure with medical equipment – the beat of a human heart heard through a stethoscope, the sight of a microorganism wriggling under a microscope.
“I think, more or less, at that time I wanted to work and to play with light,” he said May 25, at a Masterclass for Northwestern students. “I’m really fortunate to be able to do that by being a filmmaker.”
Weerasethakul was present on campus as the Master of Fine Arts in Documentary Media program’s 2023 Hoffman Visiting Artist, a short-term filmmaker residency at Northwestern’s School of Communications, awarded to today’s leading artists. His lecture, entitled “A CONVERSATION: illusion, memory, and time,” took listeners on an illuminating journey through the filmmaker’s past and processes, as well as the politics and places from his home country that figure into his work. The masterclass, hosted at The Block Museum , was open to students in Northwestern’s Documentary Media; Art, Theory, and Practice, and Asian Languages and Cultures departments.
Weerasethakul’s formally adventurous body of work, which encompasses short films, gallery installations, and feature films that toy with notions of documentary and duration, made him a perfect candidate for MFA in Documentary Media students to learn from.
“As a program, we seek to move beyond genre restrictions and formal restraints towards innovative approaches to moving image practices,” said J.P. Sniadecki, Professor and Director of the MFA in Documentary Media program. “Apichatpong Weerasethakul is an example of an artist whose inspiring practice and imaginative vision are not bounded by genre or medium, as seen in his cinema, installations, books, and illustrations.”
As much as insight, Weerasethakul’s lecture also offered a rare glimpse at less accessible parts of his work. That included short films, snapshots of his installation work, and a deleted scene from his Palme D’or winning 2010 film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives in which Boonmee is reincarnated as a pond-dwelling organism much like the ones Weerasethakul saw through his mother’s microscope as a child.
Weerasethakul also spoke to students at length about the way his love and understanding of filmmaking has changed with time. As a younger filmgoer in his hometown of Khon Kaen, then a small province in the northeast of Thailand, he was swept away by the kinds of genre movies and epics that played at local moviehouses.
“If I look back today, these films are full of narratives on the government’s propaganda and full of nationalism and whatnot,” he said.
But his perspective on them now is more contemplative than exclusively critical – he is still fascinated on a certain level with their tales of ghosts and starships.
“For me, ghosts are another kind of spectacle,” he said.
Ghosts, spirits and the likes make appearances in numerous of his films, among them Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives (2010), Tropical Malady (2004) and Memoria (2021)
For MFA in Art, Theory, and Practice student José De Sancristóbal Higareda, Weerasethakul’s masterclass was a reminder that the artistic process does not need to be bound by rigid planning.
“Sometimes as an artist you feel like everything needs to make sense from the outset,” he said. “What I’m thinking about the most after this week was not having a super delineated plan on what every element of your work is going to do.”
Weerasethakul followed a thread of political comment through his home country’s history and his film and other art. He spoke about the village of Nabua, the site of an anticommunist military occupation by the Thai government from the 60s through the 80s that also has a lingering presence in his work. That work, which he told listeners about as he showed images of its making, included the Primitive project, a functional sculpture made of wood to represent a transport for the youth of Nabua away from their hometown.
“This project was the start of my interest in sleeping and dreaming,” he said.
Sleep and dreams feature extensively throughout Weerasethakul’s body of work, and he shared with students excerpts of his films and gallery installations that deal in the dreamlike. Those included “Fireworks (Archive),” a short film; “SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL,” an installation and “Fever Room,” a live performance. Much of the art Weerasethakul showcased in his lecture is spottily available outside of occasional theatrical and gallery exhibitions.
Weerasethakul’s visit to Northwestern University was years in the making, Sniadecki said. Collaboration between the Documentary Media program and Block Cinema, as well as coincidence – Sniadecki and Weerasethakul connected last fall when both shared new works in a Spanish exhibition celebrating the life and work of American filmmaker Bruce Baillie – finally made it happen.
“I’ve been wanting to host Apichatpong at Northwestern since I first came here in 2015,” Sniadecki said. “He’s the most celebrated and original filmmaker working today.”
In addition to teaching his masterclass for Documentary Media students, Weerasethakul also offered one-on-one studio visits with MFA students and visited a pair of classes – one on queer cinema and another on essay films.
Erik Nuding, an MFA student in Documentary Media, engaged with Weerasethakul in one such studio visit, in which Weerasethakul asked, “what makes you want to finish this film?” about a piece of in-progress work – a simple question with difficult answers, because what Weerasethakul was after were personal, non-intellectual answers. It was “very refreshing,” Nuding said.
For Nuding, one of the highlights of Weerasethakul’s visit to The Block Museum was just seeing the passion for the work – in near-sold-out screenings, classroom participants eager to learn, and Q&A attendees eager to ask about the work.
“It’s clear that people are hungry to engage with a slower, more rhythmic form of cinema that’s led by intuition instead of intellect,” Nuding said.
In addition to 11 studio visits with MFA in Documentary Media students and two classroom visits, Weerasethakul was present for three screening programs and Q&As at The Block Museum – Tropical Malady (2004) on Monday, April 24; “Blessings of Cinema,” a shorts program, on Tuesday, April 25 and Syndromes and a Century (2006) on Friday, April 28. Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century and the short film Anthem were presented in 35mm. The artist’s Chicago residency also included a screening of his most recent feature Memoria (2021) at a Northwestern co-sponsored screening held at the Siskel Film Center.
– Reporting by Christopher Forrester, Communications Coordinator