Sundance doc: Jeffrey Palmer lets N. Scott Momaday speak in “Words from a Bear”
N. Scott Momaday, a Kiowa writer and the first Native American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is nothing if not a voice.
Distinctive, poetic and authoritative both on the page and aloud, Momaday is widely credited with translating Kiowa lore into literature, and started a period of proliferation of Native American writing. Director Jeffrey Palmer seeks to capture that voice, and present Momaday’s life and his quality as a storyteller in his new film “Words from a Bear” screening in the Documentary Premieres category in the Sundance Film Festival.
Palmer, who is also Kiowa and grew up just six miles from Momaday’s house in Lawton, Oklahoma, is a returner to Sundance, after his short film, “Isabelle’s Garden,” screened in 2015. He took on “Words from a Bear” to document Momaday for the PBS series American Masters, and dove into Momaday’s words and life.
The film intersperses interviews with Momaday and his friends and family, including James Earl Jones, Robert Redford and Jeff and Beau Bridges, and splices them between shots of Momaday plucking away at his keyboard in his home along with animated interpretations of Momaday’s poetry.
“What we had to do a lot of times was make a decision between whether we go into the real spaces of Momaday (who is 84, uses a wheelchair and spends his days at home) or we go into these more, what I would call, almost imagined realism or magical realism,” Palmer said. “It’s in his headspace, what his stories are about and what he is thinking.”
Tuesday, Jan. 29, noon, Library Center Theatre
Wednesday, Jan. 30, 3:45 p.m., Broadway Centre Cinema 3, Salt Lake City
Thursday, Jan. 31, 3:30 p.m., The Ray Theatre
Saturday, Feb. 2, 10 p.m., Redstone Cinema 2
The result is artistic interpretations of Momaday’s recounting of life, youth, Kiowa culture and his poetry.
“We went into these stories,” Palmer said. “We kind of pushed against the walls of contemporary documentary.”
Palmer describes the film as a celebration of Momaday’s life, with cinematic interpretations, rather than a journalistic examination of Momaday.
It was also the first American Masters film on a Native American in the program’s 32-season history, a fact Palmer said was “shocking.”
“There might be a couple in there who we (the public) might have never realized were Native American, but as far as someone recognized as being that person, Momaday is the first,” he said.
Palmer said the project strengthened his view that Native Americans need more representation in the media, and deserve to be recognized for their work as storytellers in particular.
Momaday helped open the door for other Native Americans to achieve literary success in America through his book “House Made of Dawn” and his legacy continues today through writers like Tommy Orange and Terese Marie Mailhot, but Palmer said Native Americans are still underrepresented.
“There’s still more to do, and more recognition needs to be had,” he said. “But these writers, and some of whom we have in our film like Joy Harjo and Simon Ortiz, they are just fascinating people and their stories are things the rest of the American public need to hear and realize are there. It’s so insightful for us as Americans to know these types of ideas and perspectives exist. It’s only strengthened my feeling that Native American literature has some of the finest American writers and for many reasons they aren’t recognized the way they should be.”
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