Sundance is a roller coaster. For Jeffery Palmer (whose directorial debut Words from a Bear premiered this week at the festival) that ride began in 2012 when he applied to the Sundance Institute's Indigenous Program. Access to mentors and support from the Institute nurtured Palmer's creative journey as his film—a tribute to Palmer's lifelong hero, the Pulitzer-prize winning Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday and a powerful exploration of Kiowa culture—came to fruition.
Pre-festival, we checked in with Palmer to see how he was doing. Now halfway through the fest and post Words from a Bear premiere, we chatted again to find out a little bit more about the film and how Sundance 2019 is treating Palmer.
Momaday has been a hero of yours basically your whole life. Was the film the first time you'd met him?
I actually met him when I was seven, attending a Fourth of July pow-wow with my father. This huge man, with a deep voice and hands the size of baseball mitts, came up to us and my dad introduced him to me. I always asked my dad to talk about him, but I didn't see him again until the film, some 30 years later.
What was it like having Momaday here at the premiere of the film?
So amazing. He's ill and bound to a wheelchair and it's very difficult for him to travel. Having him here to be a part of it was such an honor. I also think it's great for people to see him and know he's well. He would be the best critic of the film—we'll talk later about it, but in the moment he seemed like he was touched, which meant a lot to me.
Incorporating Kiowa history and culture was very important to you in this film, can you think of a few words that encapsulate that Kiowa aesthetic to you?
That's really difficult, but I would say: rhythm, song, the land, spirit. All those things encompass who we are. And tradition. There's something about the tradition of being a people for so many hundreds or thousands of years. We're a mysterious tribe because we don't necessarily know our beginnings, so we're always on the path of searching for who we are and that makes tradition very important.
What's a typical day at the festival for you as a filmmaker?
When I wake up, I lay in bed and stare at the ceiling for a few minutes before I get up. There's a lot of press in the morning and throughout the afternoon. I was lucky to be able to do a panel earlier in the week and take the time to prepare for it. Then there are meet and greets and different parties and things in the evening, so you can socialize with other filmmakers and people who came to see your film. All those things make it a full day from sun up to sun down, but it's so exciting in the moment that you don't know what tired is and you keep going for 10 days, finding little pockets to get some rest. It's definitely not for the faint of heart going up and down the hill every day.
Do you have a favorite part of the festival?
I love the panels more than anything. The screenings are obviously important as a filmmaker, but to be on a panel and have a discourse with other people about your film, there's something very pleasurable about that. It's an experience I always wanted as a filmmaker, for people to discuss my film and figure out a way for us to come to common ground on the things we think and know about. That's very exciting.
When you're in Park City, do you have any favorite places to grab a bite or coffee?
It's actually very hard to get into a lot of places on Main Street during the festival, so I usually drive out to Slapfish in Kimball Junction. I will say, I'm not a big coffee drinker, but I have popped into the Java Cow a few times for a cup.
Now that you've told this story, where do you want to go next with your filmmaking? Do you see yourself pursuing more Native American stories or branching out?
One of the things Scott [Momaday] has done so well is always reinventing himself in the work he does. I think for myself as an artist, I was not only telling a story about Scott, but also about myself. A lot went into that and I think now I can move onto other things and ideas. Whether they are Native American or not, I don't know. My lived experience is more than just living in Oklahoma with Kiowa people. It's been a tapestry and I think my stories will go in other directions as well. My heart is there and my mind works in the way of a Kiowa man, so I think regardless of what or who I'm filming, there will always be a Kiowa aesthetic.
The final Sundance screening of Words from a Bear takes place on February 2 at the Redstone Cinema 2.