Lessons from Sundance

Growing up in urban Springfield, Massachusetts, Assistant Professor of Photography Leah Dyjak had the initial impression that events like Sundance were inaccessible to the average person. That all changed with their visits to the Sundance Film Festival in 2023 and 2024. “I saw what Sundance was and how anybody could go. [Sundance] changed my entire life because I saw films I found inspiring, and I met people like me who were my age, who were filmmakers who were not from a super privileged background, who were making films and making them work.”

Building upon their background as a photographer, Dyjak is shifting towards the world of cinema. They note the differences and similarities between photography and filmmaking, explaining that filmmaking is very synergetic and requires high-level collaboration skills, while photo-work is more independent and self-driven. After working as Director of Photography on The Goddessy, written and directed by Joey Soloway, Dyjak was catapulted into top-tier film festivals such as Cannes and Sundance.

“I’m energized when I get back from Sundance. I can start my spring semester with a lot of things to talk about, [especially] the story of how I went from being a photographer to working in film, which I think is great because I am a person from a working-class family, which I know a lot of students also are. I bring Sundance back into the classroom by sharing the amount of crossover between photography and how I was trained with filmmaking.”

Leah also brings back important practical advice to the classroom. They advise students to attend film festivals to practice their “elevator pitch.” Students should also get involved with as many projects as possible.  “Say yes to everything you can regarding professional opportunities. Even if you think ‘I’m not qualified to do it,’  just say yes anyway, and ask for support. They continued, “Most importantly make things with friends.”

In addition to developing a queer home renovation show for TV, Dyjak is working on an original script for a feature film with the working title of Brooks Brody. “It is a love story between a disenchanted artist/aids activist and a fiery millennial who come together to confront mortality in the wake of another pandemic,” they explain.

Dyjak felt compelled to write the script after the passing of their close friend, Brody.

“Three days after they passed, I got super clear that I needed to write the story that never happened in addition to honoring Brody’s life and work because Brody was a very prominent activist in the organization Act Up and was a founding member of the collective fierce pussy.” They continued, “because of the nature of the AIDS crisis, Brody ended up taking care of a lot of friends of theirs that were dying.”

New to the world of screenwriting, Leah is excited and confident.

“If you look at first-time directors and filmmakers, even in the last couple of years, these are regular people. Celine Song, who made the film Past Lives, just sat down and wrote a script and gave it to an agent who then and now it’s up for an Oscar.” They continued, “When that idea comes roaring through you, which it did for me, listen to that voice, even if you have never done something like it before”.

– Written by Madison Morin ’24