The 2019 Sundance Film Festival began on January 24 and runs through February 3, 2019. “Words From a Bear” is part of the documentary premieres at Sundance and had its World Premiere on January 29 at 12 p.m. at Library Center Theatre.
“Do you see what happens when the imagination is super-imposed upon the historical event? It becomes a story…” – N. Scott Momaday
From the outset, with these words, “Words From a Bear” paints a portrait of a storyteller.
“Words From a Bear” marks the directorial debut of Jeffrey Palmer. Palmer is an indigenous (Kiowa) filmmaker and media artist. His short film “Isabelle’s Garden” screened at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival as part of the Sundance Institute Short Film Challenge. He is an alumnus of Sundance Institute’s Native American and Indigenous Program, a participant in Sundance Institute’s Creative Producing Summit, and a Firelight Media Documentary Lab fellow. He is currently an assistant professor of film at Syracuse University.
“Words From a Bear” covers the life, accolades, and influence of Kiowa poet and 1969 Pulitzer Prize winner, N. Scott Momaday. Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize marked one of the first major acknowledgments of Native American literature, not as a reflection of that past but as a vibrant and contemporary culture.
The theme of connection and culture weaves through the entirety of “Words From a Bear,” but that concept is just as prevalent in how the film was conceived and executed.
Director Jeffrey Palmer, as a Kiowa creator, brings that tradition of shared experience and storytelling into the project. That kinship of their background was a huge motivator to Palmer in making sure that Momaday’s work was not only presented well, but authentically.
Palmer’s father is a Kiowa linguist and writer and he and Momaday were close, in their youth. In fact, Palmer’s father was the one conducting the interviews! This decision meant a lot more than just an opportunity among friends. Palmer wanted to honor the cultural principle and meaning of two elders being able to speak to each other.
It redefines the term “passion project” to see so much care and consideration woven into every. single. aspect. of the piece.
Jeffrey Palmer set out with the mission of representing the monumental life and works of N. Scott Momaday in a form befitting his culture and influences. Did he succeed?
He nailed it.
Momaday’s story is told through a series of interviews, historical reflection, and spoken excerpts of his greatest works.
Momaday is a fascinating presence, from the moment he appears on screen. There is such quiet strength and elegance to his demeanor. This person has the bearing of everything you would imagine a great poet to be.
What is even more impressive than the man himself is the way he impacts those around him. Momaday boasts an impressive circle of friends as “Words From a Bear” welcomes commentary from James Earl Jones, Jeff Bridges and Sundance Institute founder Robert Redford. All impressive artists in their own right, totally spellbound by and showing such respect for Momaday.
The way he is spoken of by those that admire his work almosts lifts Momaday up as a figure of legend. His influence goes beyond the quality of his work, but to something almost spiritual. It’s damn fascinating to watch and I’d be lying if I said I was not totally enthralled by every word he spoke.
As I briefly touched on before, so much of the media understanding of Native American culture is very rooted in the past. The images we conjure, the work we’re familiar with, and our relationship to that culture. “Words From a Bear” is a beautiful look at how that culture, with its strong connections to the past, is a living and breathing thing that evolves and responds to the world.
What I found so particularly moving is that the Kiowa culture, and the way that Momaday contextualizes it, does not feel the need to distance itself from the past. Rather, the art carries the past along with it. To create meaningful, contemporary work is to acknowledge and honor the art that got you there.
It’s a unique and refreshing concept in a culture that is constantly pushing towards newness and the “latest thing.”
Something so fascinating about N. Scott Momaday’s work is how quintessentially Kiowa it is. He’s taking the very root of the Kiowa culture and letting his work bloom from that point. His poetry is full of the markers of traditional Kiowa storytelling: nature, the shared experience, and the storyteller as keeper of the past and present of the tribe’s history.
His second outlet for this is in his paintings, where he takes a decidedly modern approach to very rooted Kiowa ideas. To say that N. Scott Momaday is a man of many talents is the understatement of the century.
There is a heaviness to “Words From a Bear” that is hard to describe. It is a heaviness that goes beyond the emotional weight of the history that you are learning, the hardships and the means of enduring. It comes with the understanding that you, the viewer, are being asked to carry something of great importance.
Listening to Momaday’s works feels like you are being passed the weight of culture and understanding and you very readily feel that weight, as you’re watching the film.
It’s a damn interesting experience and makes this a damn good documentary.
At the structural level, “Words From a Bear” soothes and seduces with beautiful shots of nature, compelling historical imagery, and seamlessly included Native American art styles. It creates an authentic landscape, blending the space, the time, and the cultural expression of a people. Well done.
“Words From a Bear” is not just the story of a great poet and cultural artist. It’s about the art of storytelling. Where it comes from, the importance of it, the ways it shapes individuals and travels over time, and it is illustrated through the influence of one of its great masters.
To quote the master, “We have always had words, they say…”
There are so many layers to “Words From a Bear,” each revealing something more profound and moving than the last.
And don’t worry if you can’t make the Sundance Film Festival, “Words From a Bear” will air to a national audience in 2019 on the PBS documentary series “American Masters.” Dates and times are TBD.
Catch more screenings of “Words From a Bear” at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival below. For ticket info, click here.
- Wednesday, January 30 at 3:45 p.m. at Broadway Centre Cinema SLC
- Thursday, January 31 at 3:30 p.m. at The Ray Theatre
- Saturday, February 2 at 10:00 p.m. at Redstone Cinema
Featured image credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Jeffrey Palmer.
Caitlin is a lean, mean writing machine based in Austin, TX. Her love of film began when she was shown “Rosemary’s Baby” way too early in life. Bylines include The Financial Diet and Film Inquiry. Caitlin is a member of the Online Association of Female Film Critics and the Women Film Critics Circle.