When the Sundance Institute put out a call for entries for its Short Film Challenge, there was no shortage of submissions—to be precise, there were 1,387 of them. That vast field was narrowed down to five winners, to be shown tomorrow at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and among that elite group is "Isabelle's Garden," by Kiowa filmmaker Jeffrey Palmer.
The goal of the Short Film Challenge is "to spark global conversation highlighting human ingenuity and imaginative solutions real people are creating to overcome challenges like extreme hunger and poverty." Palmer's film is about a young Choctaw girl who is doing what she can in her small community.
"Isabelle's Garden" will have its online premiere here at ICTMN following the February 1st conclusion of Sundance 2015. We spoke with Palmer about the nature of his work and the project.
Filmmaker Jeffrey Palmer. Image courtesy Sundance Institute.
What is your film about?
It's about how Native, Indigenous communities in this country can come together to have good things happen. And it's about poverty—we were trying to define what poverty is in the U.S. A lot of the other films in the Short Film Challenge are from countries where there's a very different idea of what poverty means. Poverty in Indian country is an issue that is seldom seen. Rather than go to Pine Ridge—which is an image that has been seen—we made our film in various places around southeast Oklahoma.
What's the significance of the garden?
The reason why we chose the garden as the center of the film is that Choctaw, Chickasaw people, they're agriculturalists traditionally. We think that if people worked together, poverty might not look the same. Tribally, we've been doing that for centuries.
Was this a project you were already working on, or did you make it for the Short Film Challenge?
We did the film for this project. I'm a Sundance fellow, somebody sent me a link to the project. And I thought, Sundance has done a lot of things for me. I thought that this platform could do a lot to shed light on the current impoverished state of southeastern Oklahoma—the Choctaw Nation was one of the first five places designated a "Promise Zone" by President Obama. I was on a walk with my wife, and I asked her whether she would want to produce this film, and literally on that walk we came up with the story. We went down there in May, and shot it in three or four days. It cost $200 to make, out of my pocket.
When you say you wrote the story—so this is not a documentary?
Isabelle does exist and she does have a garden. It took us a long time to find her; we met her at the Choctaw Trail of Tears Walk and she was perfect. There are elements that are documentary; as we were making it we thought, well, this could be a documentary or it could be fiction. But we wanted to make it more of fantasy world for Isabelle. We're calling it a docu-drama.
Isabelle surveys her garden in a still from 'Isabelle's Garden.' Image courtesy Sundance Institute.