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DePaul alumna's Indie Studio film wins top prize at Slamdance festival

Linh Tran directed 'Waiting for the Light to Change' as a School of Cinematic Arts student

Four young people smiling and holding a statue award in front of a step and repeat that says 'Slamdance'
Filmmaker Linh Tran, front right, celebrates with her cast and co-creators, from left, Quin Chi, Sam Straley and Jewells Santos in Park City, Utah, after their film won top honors (and the blue-green "Sparky" statue) at the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival. (Photo by @laurentakespix)

Amid the snow and blue skies of Park City, Utah, DePaul alumna Linh Tran felt the sun rising on her burgeoning filmmaking career. The last week of January, her film "Waiting for the Light to Change" won the top prize at the prestigious Slamdance Film Festival: the Narrative Feature Grand Jury Prize.

As a student, Tran wrote and directed the film with DePaul's Indie Studio, led by faculty member James Choi. School of Cinematic Arts students powered the crew and production, including Jake Rotger, David Foy, Jacob Ocker, Dan Stewart, Tom Le, George Ellzey Jr., Megan Moore, Elijah Gray, Sam Howells, Adam Noll and Don Eblahan. Alumni from The Theatre School were key contributors as well: co-writer Delia Van Praag, co-writer and producer Jewells Santos, and cast member and producer Sam Straley.

"The journey we took to make 'Waiting for the Light to Change' was a wild ride and a tremendous learning experience. I can't say enough how thankful I am for the cast and crew behind this film and the support provided to us by DePaul University, as well as for the people who watched it and gave it a chance," says Tran, who earned her MFA in film and television directing in 2020. "This win was beyond my wildest imagination, but we did it. I feel optimistic about the future of our film and hope that it will reach and move many more people."

According to Variety, the Slamdance jury called "Waiting for the Light to Change" an "exceptional act of patience, restraint, courage and authenticity. Filmmaker Linh Tran paints a remarkably honest portrait of vulnerability that breaks open the heart of its audience, demanding sincerity and drawing deep reflection of the fractured nature of ourselves and the complex, human spaces between each of us."

The film follows a young group of friends grappling with attractions, old resentments and jealousies while staying in an empty little beach town. Ahead of the film's first festival premiere last fall, Tran said: "It was up to us to create whatever we believed in. James and the school were supportive of our crazy idea to write a brand-new script and shoot it quickly, without much control on their end other than safety protocols."

According to Choi, DePaul's Indie Studio started in 2017 to teach and inspire students who are part of the digital revolution in the film industry. Together with faculty, students explore the shift in the process for a new generation of filmmakers coming out of school. The School of Cinematic Arts finances micro-budget productions and shepherds students through the whole process from development, production, post and distribution through workshops and classes.

"The Slamdance honor is a truly remarkable achievement for these students and alumni of DePaul University, and a testament to their talent and the incredible things that can be accomplished with the right support," Choi says.

This year's Slamdance lineup was chosen from more than 7,600 total submissions, 1,522 of which were features. All films selected in the Narrative Features and Documentary Features competition categories are directorial debuts without U.S. distribution, with budgets o​f less than $1 million — an aspect that has been unique to Slamdance since its founding in 1995. The features hail from 13 different countries, including the Netherlands, Japan, South Korea, Serbia, Poland, Germany, Laos, India, and the Philippines.

Read more about "Waiting for the Light to Change."