Arts Unplugged event features Sundance film screening, masterclass

Cornell’s newest film professor will share advice for creating a Sundance documentary and screen his latest feature film during an Oct. 17 event at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts.

Jeff Palmer, assistant professor in the Department of Performing & Media Arts, will lead a masterclass and public screening of "N. Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear” as the second event in the College of Arts & Sciences’ new Arts Unplugged series.

Momaday, a Kiowa and Native America’s most celebrated author of poetry and prose, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969.

The evening will also include a talk by Gus Palmer, professor emeritus at the University of Oklahoma, and a conversation between Gus Palmer and Steve Henhawk, who is Cayuga and is teaching a new Cayuga language course on campus this semester.

“Words from a Bear” is Jeff Palmer’s first feature film. Selected for the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, it will be featured Nov. 18 on PBS’ American Masters series. The film explores the creative works of Momaday.

“I had one of the best writers in American history as my screenwriter and not many people get that,” Palmer said. “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.”

Words from a Bear cast and crew
Back row, from left: Michael Kantor (executive producer), Jill Momaday, Shirley Sneve (executive producer), Gus Palmer Jr., Jeff Palmer. Front row: N. Scott Momaday

Despite Momaday’s prize-winning work, Palmer said he’s not a household name. “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.”

The shared Kiowa background of both Palmer and Momaday 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 his father and 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. Because Scott is an elder, it didn’t seem right for me to bark or direct questions at him, which often happens in documentaries,” Palmer said. “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 masterclass by 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 masterclass, 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,” 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.

The Arts Unplugged series was created by the College of Arts & Sciences to bring artistic and creative works into the public sphere for discussion and inspiration. This event is also sponsored by the Departments of Performing & Media Arts and English, and the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program.

The first Arts Unplugged event was a public 12-hour reading of the Odyssey this spring. The next event in the series will be “The World According to Sound,” Nov. 20-21, a live audio show that represents Cornell University entirely through sound.

Amaris Janel Henderson is a communications assistant for the College of Arts & Sciences.

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 Illustration for the screening of the N. Scott Momaday: Words From a Bear documentary