Kit Zauhar Is The Filmmaker Confronting The Digital Gaze
As technology becomes more and more seamlessly integrated into our lives, conversations surrounding technology and intimacy can sometimes seem stale and repetitive; words like “connection” and “intimacy” and “loneliness” thus become kind of buzzwords for an otherwise redundant and empty echo chamber. For writer and filmmaker Kit Zauhar, however, these questions of intimacy and connection are ever-evolving and constantly changing, and her work inspires a fresh, new dialogue on intimacy and connection in an increasingly digital landscape.
Zauhar, who grew up in Philadelphia and moved to New York for NYU’s film program, draws heavily upon her personal experiences, particularly her romantic and sexual experiences, for her writing and films. What’s refreshing about Zauhar’s work is that it is an honest exploration of sexuality, relationships, and most of all—intimacy. No emotion, observation, or thought is filtered or redacted, and while you can describe Zauhar’s writing as tender and vulnerable, it is far from shy or delicate. Instead, her work is a brutally honest attempt at documenting and untangling questions of desire and identity by turning her own lens back onto the multitude of gazes, whether that be the male gaze or the digital gaze, that complicate questions of sex, love, and intimacy. These explorations culminate into her newest film, The Terrestrials, which comes out early September.
Read the full interview below as Zauhar talks to us about The Terrestrials, her writing process, and what it means to be honest with yourself.
How would you describe your work?
My work—in the most distilled sense—is about intimacy and connection. Especially intimacy between unlikely people and intimacy as escape. Intimacy as solace.
What does unlikely people mean? Do you have a definition yet or is that what you’re searching for?
I’m interested in how quickly people come together. A lot of the things I write are about people who under normal circumstances probably wouldn’t get along but are forced into situations or brought into situations in which they are made to spend a lot of time together or learn a lot about each other very quickly. It’s kind of like the desert island thing—people will come together or people will mate or connect when given the platform or forced onto a platform.
So what is The Terrestrials about?
The Terrestrials is my thesis film. It’s a sci-fi film about a world in which there’s a virtual Tinder, essentially. You’re plugged into this VR simulation and can have sex with someone in this virtual limbo space. The protagonist uses it to get over someone who has left her and while she’s in it, there’s a system malfunction and she’s stuck in this virtual limbo with a stranger she’s just had sex with. So then she just has to be in there and have a conversation.
How does technology play into your work? I’m thinking of your Photobooth series and your film, The Terrestrials.
The idea for The Terrestrials came to me when I saw these Seamless ads a while ago that were like, “Why ever talk to anyone? Why can’t you just get your food?” and I was just like, “Ew, fuck that.” Obviously as someone who’s main theme is intimacy and connection, I fucking hate seeing shit like that. You’re going to do everything in your power to not talk to a person? That is the world we’re moving towards.
I’ve always been very critical of technology but, I’ve also always been interested in what are the ways people use technology to build a connection. When I went to NYU, I never used a real camera, I actually made my submission film on a flip camera. I just didn’t really have the resources for all the high tech stuff, so I’ve been really interested ever since I was young in creating images that weren’t super high definition. It was always really simple—just photo booth and my flip camera. I used my flip camera all the way up to sophomore year of college and it was just easy. It was just like talking, so connection felt easy through technology because of that. And now that I use higher tech stuff, I think I’ve lost that a little honestly and I don’t like Instagram as a means for emotional connection. I guess I’m still figuring it out.
I noticed that a lot of your work is not only centered around intimacy but also the exploration of intimacy with yourself through the male gaze and the digital gaze.
For better for worst, I structured a lot of what I thought when I was younger around those ideas of male desire and being beautiful in that sense. Now it’s lead to a lot of pervasive anxiety because I see myself as being a part of that but no longer want to be, or in other words, knowing that I am a product of something but trying to figure out how to stop that pattern of behavior. I’ve always been interested in sex before I was having it. Not being so much drawn to the concept of sex or the physicality of it or even the idea of orgasm, but being interested in how two people can be that close and vulnerable and that intimate with each other. I think sex is just the epitome of those things that I was interested in so that’s why, for me, sex is very interesting and that’s why there’s a lot of male gaze in it because to have a connection with someone, they have to reciprocate. In it’s reciprocity you have to sort of cater to it in some ways.
It’s interesting because in your work there’s a self awareness that you are catering to the male gaze, but also in that self-awareness is a subversion to it. You insert your own body and your own sexuality and your own desires, which is really cool. It’s not necessarily about the results, of whether or not you succeeded, but more so about capturing the exploration of that process
Yeah, and I think in a lot of ways it’s a game. Maybe it’s because I’m aware of it and that comes through. Honesty at the end of the day can be really sexy and having an honest relationship with yourself, I’d like to think leads to honest relationships with other people.
Do you think you have an honest relationship with yourself? And what does it mean to have an honest relationship?
I think I have a very honest relationship with myself. I have depression and anxiety and I think that forces you to understand how your sadnesses are working, both to get out of them and to make sure to avoid things that cause them. It makes you honest about everything else in your life.
What’s your writing process like?
I do write a lot of fiction, but in terms of non fiction, I have to really condense an experience. There’s things from high school that I haven’t written about that I want to. For me, I’ll think about it for a really long time and I’ll just reach a point in where I’m like, “Oh! This is a good ending for it!” or a good beginning or middle or whatever. And then I’ll start writing from there. But I’ll just be thinking about stuff a lot, just kind of in passing.
A lot of this is about identity. Do you think about your identity a lot? And if so, what does it mean to you?
When I think about my identity, I think of Kit. Just the name, ‘Kit’. My real name is Catherine, but no one really knows that. I actually gave myself this name. I went to a public school in West Philly and then I got into this fancy elementary school in Center City, the rich part of Philly. When I got there, I got this “new start” and I was like, “I don’t really want to be Catherine”. I never really identified with that name and I changed it to Kit. I think it’s funny because it’s an easy name to have heard of.
In terms of race, I am in this unique position of being Chinese but not really looking Chinese. I do think about that, but I think because I’ve never had it thrown in my face, it comes out in my unconscious as being important. Identity for me is weird because I think as a writer, you spend so much of your day inside, by yourself, just typing away and it’s not really a field in which you are also wearing a uniform and going around being like, “I am a writer.” You’re kind of just like, a person. Writing bios at our age is super weird to me because to assert anything about yourself at this age is, like, really bizarre to me. So I don’t really know yet, I just think of “Kit”.
Where are you hoping to go with your art?
My main goal, which has been my main goal since I was very young, is to write, direct, and act, kind of in a Miranda July style. So in that way, I’m hoping to find the sweet spot where they all work together.
Where do you feel you are at in terms of your creative development?
In my process right now, I’m a little over primarily emotional writing or art making (not that I don’t think it’s important). I think with this (The Terrestrials), it’s a clear step away from Kit as the emotional artist or the ranty artist and for me, I now want to think about things conceptually. I think a lot of stuff I’ve been working on recently has been, “Okay, how can I distill this emotion into a concept or an idea that stretches a little farther than this happened to me and I want the audience to feel exactly how I felt.”
How have you been able to cultivate intimacy in your own life? Or is that something you are still trying to explore either through your art or through relationships irl?
I think intimacy is a hard thing for me to actually talk about. It’s a lot easier to write about. For me, again, it’s about honesty. I think last year I was having more weird, random, sporadic romantic interactions with a lot of different people and I wasn’t really being honest with myself and just going through the motions of how to achieve these things that I wanted. So looking back, I wasn’t being super honest with myself and it hurt me and my intimacy.
You talk a lot about the younger you. What would you say to younger Kit?
That’s hard because I’m happy with who I am now. But younger Kit is a different entity. I would tell her not to be so afraid. I used to be very scared, which I think is why a lot of my characters in all my stories and kind of in my films, my protagonists are very passive. They’re having things happen first and having to react as a means of survival or it’s them looking back at something in which they are passive. I think for me, I wish she wasn’t so passive. I wish I knew I was allowed to be angry.
When is The Terrestrials coming out? What are you up to next?
It’ll be ready for festival season, so that’ll be happening for the next year starting in September. In terms of other projects, I’m currently working on a show with Evan Jonigkeit. I also think I’m going to apply to grad school. I’m taking an acting class, hoping to do more acting within the next year or two and see where that goes.
Featured image courtesy of Hailey Heaton
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