Visiting Artists: Dave Eggers & Jonathan Demme

“This is where I would have gone to school if I lived only 400 or 500 miles away or if I could have designed a school,” Dave Eggers told audience members as he opened his NOCCA Institute Center Stage presentation of his latest literary and film works, Zeitoun and Where the Wild Things Are.

Joining him on stage on the evening of November 6 were Kathy and Abdulrahman Zeitoun, known throughout their neighborhood and New Orleans as proprietors of a painting/contracting company, ever ready to help a neighbor in need.  Their post Hurricane Katrina experiences Eggers has told in his latest non-fiction work, Zeitoun.  As Eggers explained to students in his afternoon master class, here was “the ultimate American family” who suffered injustice because of their Islamic religion yet remain indelibly hopeful.  “There’s always one group we are allowed to hate.  I tell stories to engender compassion.  By telling stories you can move the ball forward.”

“How is it different when you were writing your own memoir (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) and when you are writing another’s story (What is the What or Zeitoun)?” asked one student at the beginning of the master class earlier in the day for Creative Writing and Media Arts.  “It’s constraining to keep the writing flowing when it is not your story; the process is very hard,” Eggers answered.  “But I am glad to reread them.  It is more fun to write about something you know well, but at the same time it is very hard to return to them.”

He shared with students similar perception regarding filmmaking versus writing.  “Writing a book, you have complete control.  Writing is an infinitely perfectible form, though at some point you have to let it go.  Film on the other hand is like trying to tame a wild animal.  As Spike Jonze, who directed Where the Wild Things Are, described it, making a film is like trying to paint a Faberge egg with a minute brush – with 400 people holding the handle.”

Eggers’ candor, generosity of spirit, and straightforward approach to sharing his techniques and experiences as a writer have made him a favorite visiting artist among students and faculty.  But he has also shared NOCCA with his colleagues, this time bringing along Academy Award-winning director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, Manchurian Candidate, Rachel Getting Married) who will direct an animated film version of Zeitoun.

The master filmmaker gave students insights into the evolution of his style and his vision for the film he will make for Zeitoun.  Ultimately, he gave them a road map. “The only way you can prove you are a capable filmmaker is to be a capable filmmaker.  And you can do that in a one minute film,” Demme told students.  How you do it is by “living life, taking your camera everywhere, and watching good films.”

“People can have their work removed from them and there is no worse feeling,” Eggers explained as he helped NOCCA’s young artists understand the difference between a watered down version of art versus a distinct vision.  “Be vigilant and protective of what you have created.”

The New Orleans Center for Creative Arts Creative Writing department is a recipient of support from the Zeitoun Foundation, established in 2009 from the proceeds of the sale of Zeitoun and dedicated to the rebuilding and ongoing health of New Orleans and to human rights.

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