In the Spotlight: A First-Time Filmmaker Shares His Sundance Experience

Meet Jeffrey Palmer, director of the documentary feature "Words From a Bear."

By Michaela Wagner January 28, 2019

A still from Words From A Bear by Jeffrey Palmer, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Whether you’re in the film industry or just a cinephile, Sundance can be incredibly overwhelming, especially if you’re a novice. Every year, dozens of filmmakers—arguably, the heart and soul of the event—experience the festival for the first time. Here, we introduce you to first dance filmmaker at Sundance Jeffrey Palmer, who is attending the 2019 festival with his documentary feature Words From a Bear.

Words From a Bear is a cinematic biography of the 1969 Pulitzer Prize-winning N. Scott Momaday, a Kiowa novelist, short story writer, essayist, and poet. Combining animation, footage from the Great Plains, and interviews from Momaday, himself, as well as Joy Harjo, Robert Redford, and Jeff and Beau Bridges, Words From a Bear delves into Momaday's literary contributions and the historical struggles of Native Americans.

Jeffrey Palmer

"Making it into Sundance felt like finishing a long marathon. When I got the call, I was on the set of another film I am currently working on and I thought it was someone joking with me," says Palmer. "The whole situation was a big surprise and completely caught me off guard. I hung up the phone and told my crew 'I got into Sundance!' and everyone went crazy."

While he's at the festival with his directorial debut, Palmer isn't entirely unfamiliar with Utah. In fact, he's an alumnus of Sundance Institute's Native American and Indigenous Program. He has also participated in Sundance Institute's Creative Producing Summit and was a Firelight Media Documentary Lab fellow. Although he looks up to numerous filmmakers, one of the biggest influences in his work is his Kiowa ancestry, in particular the work of Momaday. "My father always told me stories as a child and I was so struck by the performance—my imagination went wild. From there, I tried to find the best medium to tell my own stories, I found that medium in filmmaking," says Palmer. "I believe we interpreted Momaday's work in the best way we could from a visual and sonic standpoint. Momaday's words and stories are so strong and we tied those words to a magnificent collage of Native American experiences and aesthetics."

So what is Palmer's biggest hope for the festival? "I just want to have successful screenings," he says, adding that he hopes the audience "is satisfied with their experience," says Palmer. "I particularly love the drive from Salt Lake City to Park City. Seeing the mountains and snow just invigorates me—and let's me know that I am back to experience the festival."

Poster image of Words From A Bear 

If you're keen to check out the film, Words From a Bear is screening as part of the Documentary Premieres section and has it's world premiere on January 29 at 12 p.m. at the Library Center Theatre. Additional screenings will be held on January 30 at 3:45 p.m. at the Broadway Centre Cinema 3 (Salt Lake City), January 31 at 3:30 p.m. at The Ray Theatre, and February 2 at the Redstone Cinema 2.

We'll check back with Palmer later in the festival to find out more about him, his work, and how his Sundance experience is going. 

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