Cornell’s newest film professor will share advice for creating a powerful documentary and screen his latest film in the second event in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Arts Unplugged series, Oct. 17 at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts.
Jeff Palmer, an assistant professor in the Department of Performing and Media Arts, will lead a master class and public screening of his first feature film, “N. Scott Momaday: Words From a Bear.” The film was featured at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and will be shown Nov. 18 on PBS’s “American Masters” series.
The evening will also include a talk by Gus Palmer, professor emeritus at the University of Oklahoma, and a conversation between him and Steve Henhawk, a member of the Cayuga Nation who is teaching a new Cayuga language course on campus this semester.
“Words From a Bear” explores the creative works of Momaday, a member of the Kiowa tribe and trailblazing Native American author and poet. He won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969 for his novel, “House Made of Dawn.”
“I had one of the best writers in American history as my screenwriter, and not many people get that,” Jeff Palmer said of Momaday. “It was a very visceral experience for me as an artist and filmmaker working with that material, but also for audiences to be captivated by it.”
Despite his prize-winning work, Momaday is not a household name, Palmer said.
“Somehow Momaday has been lost in conversations as it often happens with people of color who do great things,” Palmer said. “The importance is to revive these stories and to tell them to the world.”
Palmer’s and Momaday’s shared Kiowa background makes for a film that not only captures the spirit of Momaday, but the Kiowa American experience as well.
“My film talks a lot about the boarding school era and the Kiowa trail of tears,” Palmer said. “But what’s inspiring to me, more than looking at those dark periods of our time, is how you survive these things. Survival of generational trauma is what makes us special in terms of the stories we have to tell.”
Palmer’s film is laced with personal connections: Gus Palmer is Jeff’s father, and he shares a close friendship with Momaday. Gus Palmer functioned as a go-between for the author and filmmaker.
“I took a different approach, where my father’s friendship opened the door,” Jeff Palmer said. “Because Scott is an elder, it didn’t seem right for me to bark or direct questions at him, which often happens in documentaries. Through this process I was able to build my own friendship and do my final interview with Scott by myself and dig into the deeper questions.”
The evening will begin at 5 p.m. with a public master class by Jeff Palmer, “How to Make a Sundance Documentary.” During the class, he’ll discuss visual storytelling and how screenwriting pairs with the work on screen. Following the master class, attendees can enjoy traditional Southwestern food during a reception and hear the talks by Gus Palmer and Henhawk.
The film screening will begin at 7 p.m. and include a post-show discussion featuring both Palmers.
“It’s a good time to have these conversations. There are a lot of untold stories that remain for us all,” Jeff Palmer said. “I want to make people feel like we’re transporting them to a magical place where all these voices can come together and have a discussion.”
All of the events are free and open to the public and guests can choose which events to attend. Those interested in the film screening should secure a free ticket through Eventbrite.
Amaris Janel Henderson ’21 is a communications assistant for the College of Arts and Sciences.