From Sundance to the classroom—how Mason film professors use themselves as case studies

"Suicide by Sunlight" is cowritten and directed by Mason film professor Nikyatu Jusu.

Students say one of the best things about studying at George Mason University is the opportunity to learn from industry leaders, and that’s certainly the case with two faculty members in the College of Visual and Performing Arts who are premiering their films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Assistant Professor Nikyatu Jusu’s short film, “Suicide by Sunlight,” which she directed and cowrote, follows Valentina, a day-walking vampire trying to regain custody of her children while also trying to control her desire for blood. 

Assistant Professor Hans Charles is the director of cinematography for “Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men,” a documentary series about the rise of the Wu-Tang Clan, which is the longest running hip-hop group, and their influence on music all over the world. 

While they produce different types of work both in style and concept, Jusu and Charles find common ground in their love for teaching while remaining active in the film industry. 

Jusu, a recent addition to the Film and Video Studies Program at Mason, teaches two classes: FAVS 375 Fiction Film Directing and FAVS 280 Writing for the Moving Image, where she combines fundamentals with her own experience writing scripts—such as “Suicide by Sunlight”—and showing her film at Sundance. 

"It's great to be a working filmmaker who is premiering at a festival because I can utilize that as a case study for the students,” said Jusu. 

While she filmed “Suicide by Sunlight” before becoming a faculty member at Mason, Jusu worked on post-production and will continue working on a series about the day-walking vampires. By continually working in the field, Jusu said, she can keep students up-to-date with changing industry standards.

“We're using the short film as a proof of concept for a TV series,” said Jusu. “We have the pilot—it's a much larger world, so the short film is speaking to that larger world."

Mason professor Hans Charles is the director of cinematography for “Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men.”

As an Emmy-nominated cinematographer, Charles has taught at Mason since 2014 and leads the cinematography concentration. He worked on the Wu-Tang Clan documentary, filming all over the world, while teaching cinematography and senior practicum classes at Mason.

"Sometimes the shooting schedule perfectly complemented my teaching schedule,” said Charles. “I would literally come off the set, jump on a train, come down to D.C., teach, turn around and go right back to New York.” 

Filming for a documentary is different than a narrative film that is scripted, Charles said, because there are fewer elements that are in the filmmaker’s control—such as lighting, weather and location. Working on unpredictable sets, while also teaching, left valuable teachable moments fresh in his mind. 

"One of the advantages of teaching while I'm working is I like to take a piece of what I'm working on and bring it into the class to conceptualize, to explain a dilemma I had on set and how I worked through a particular problem," said Charles. 

By breaking down his work and showing his students the process from start to finish, including behind-the-scenes looks, Charles demystifies the process for students and shows them how much work goes into the making of a movie.  

“Faculty in the Film and Visual Studies Program at Mason are encouraged to find a balance between teaching and work in their practice,” said Charles, adding that “the university gives a lot of support to help faculty find that balance.”