Kit Zauhar is a writer and filmmaker whose work deals with female sexuality, the dissection of anxiety, the minutiae of human interactions, and the process of becoming in a post-digital landscape.
Her latest short film, The Terrestrials, will screen at the Fantasia Festival later this month. Set in the near future, it tells the story of a young woman’s interaction with a device that allows psyches to meet in a minimal space to have safe, efficient, and anonymous sexual encounters.
Q: Can you talk about the device featured in ‘The Terrestrials’ and what you were thinking about when you conceptualised it?
A: The whole concept of the “Device” is based on a short poem I wrote a while ago that went something along the lines of: “If my boyfriend, in his bedroom, watches the same porn that I’m watching, in my own bedroom, are we somehow making love?” And that was an idea I was interested in. Specifically what is technology’s role in sex and love and intimacy. I also started writing this around the time that everyone was really stoked about VR, and then from there I just sort of submerged in this idea of a virtual world where strangers could have sex.
In New York you see these really faux-cheeky ads for like, Seamless or something. And they say, “Why bother talking to anybody when you can just order food and watch Netflix by yourself?” I really hate ads like that. But people buy into it. People buy into this idea that there’s something interesting or glamorous or “very New York” about not wanting to have to have human interaction and I think it’s fucked up. And then I asked myself, what if we moved towards a world where you could just seamless an orgasm? Take all the work out of getting to the pleasure?
And that actually came up a lot during auditions! Actors would say, “I was talking about the premise of this script with my partner, and they would say it was cheating or not cheating, and I would disagree, and then we’d have this argument about what it means to cheat, or make love, or what porn’s role is in a relationship.” I loved that! It definitely drove everyone’s emotions further for the actual filming.
The space is inspired by the Hemingway quote: “A clean well-lighted place.” That’s how I wanted this space to be. We’re moving towards a world that wants everything to take place in this really aesthetically pleasing and neutral place. I see it in ads, TV, in many interpretations of “the future.” We want the world to be this blank canvas. It’s disquieting honestly. Like, new condos and places like that, “gut-renoed apartments,” white sterile cafes that sell CBD sodas, for people that screams sophistication, modernity. It’s pretty gross.
Not that I don’t think the space my amazing production designer, Tyler McGillivary, created is not absolutely stunning. But we had to beautify this concept that I find sort of horrifying.
Q: The film follows Lucy’s experience as she uses the device. What can you reveal about the character and the journey this short film takes her on?
A: Lucy’s backstory is pretty vague, but you understand that she was left by her partner for another woman. It’s revealed that her partner and the other woman were meeting through the Device. She uses the Device to cope by engaging with the same process that her partner used to leave her.
However, most of the film takes place in this virtual space, where she’s in this conversation she’s forced to have with the guy she’s just had sex with, Will, who is probably someone she would never pursue in the real world. In that way, I think the Device also offers this really interesting parallels to porn. Because I don’t think you want to try everything you see in porn, at least I don’t.
But it’s something that still intrigues us, it’s something we want to engage with, at least in a way that has a level of remove. Like, Lucy didn’t actually have sex with Will. She was more having sex of herself through Will as this virtual vessel. Is that a form of self-love or self-care? I don’t know, honestly.
Q: What do you feel a female perspective brings to this subject?
A: A woman I really looked up to during the process of writing this script was Emily Witt, who wrote a book called Future Sex, which came out a few weeks into the really intense writing process. Her book’s about sex and technology from this very engaged first-person perspective, and she basically learns about desire and intimacy in the 21st century by becoming a part of it, whether as a spectator or a participant. It’s social-cultural analysis essays, not a straight narrative, but I found her perspective to be really fresh and exactly what I needed to understand how to write this story about a world that I don’t completely understand, that I can’t thoroughly grapple with.
I don’t know what I bring that is specifically female. I don’t really know how this would be written if it were a man. I can’t really imagine… maybe the whole thing would feel a little more pornographic, lol?
I don’t think that being a woman stops me from making films influenced by the male gaze. I think male desire, craving it and wanting to understand it, is a big theme in my work. So my films and my writing aren’t necessarily feminist in the sense that I don’t think their empowering in the traditional “rah rah” sense. I think they’re vulnerable. And I hope they help people of all genders feel a little more okay with being vulnerable and interact with that place where vulnerability comes from.
However, I would never say I make my art just “for women” because then I’d feel this responsibility that I’d have to live up to. And I’d judge myself very harshly (more than I already do) if I somehow failed. Sometimes I just have to go with my emotional gut. It’s not always the most moral decision but it feels right to me and it feels right to the narrative of something. I am a feminist. I always try to cast with representation in mind.
As a female director I can’t help but get worked up about equality on sets, in life, I literally got in a screaming match on the street with a group of men that catcalled me. I’m pretty vocal about how I feel. But maybe I’ll write a premise that isn’t fair to the women in it. But I hope that this fictional event illuminates something that can be changed in the real world.
For instance, with the Device, the simulation, the sex part of it, ends when the male orgasms. I thought it was funny on this one level that people in the future still have this limitation. It’s like, they’ve found a way to let people have virtual sex but it still ends when the guy comes. At the same time, I thought it was visually easier to end the sex simulation when the guy comes, so that’s what happens in the film. So maybe I’m no better than these imaginary tech bros in the future that designed this Device. I mean, I know I am, but if you’re just seeing the film and know nothing about me, you could assume that. But maybe someone would change that if they wanted to make an IRL virtual sex simulation. I’d love that. It doesn’t end till the woman comes!
Q: ‘The Terrestrials’ will screen at Fantasia. What are your hopes for the film and the conversations it sparks?
A: I’m so so excited for it to screen there! It was one of the only film festivals I wanted to get into and honestly I did not think it would. It was denied from every other big film fest, which sucked. So this was a pleasant surprise.
I really hope people appreciate the cinematography and reach out to my phenomenal DP, Owen Smith-Clark, about shooting something just as weird and beautiful. I hope people reach out to my gifted and incredibly intuitive actors, Arabella Oz and Henry Fulton Winship, about projects and opportunities.
I am curious just to hear people who know a lot about sci-fi’s opinions on the film! Mostly I’ve showed it to my friends and people who are impressed by the visual scale of everything, but I’m definitely ready to nerd out a little more and talk in-depth about how my film fits into a certain canon of sci-fi. I guess I also want to see how people who are older feel about this interpretation of the future. I think I’m quite young and naïve, when I made this film I was even moreso, and I wonder how this film comes across to people who are 40, 50 plus. I wonder what they get out of it, if anything. Maybe it feels pretty irrelevant to them. That would be interesting to know as well.
Q: Can you tell us about your background and why you were drawn to filmmaking and acting?
A: I grew up in Philly, and I went to NYU Tisch for film. I have the pretty typical story of being a theatre nerd in middle school and high school, and then transitioning to film in high school because it was “the cool” thing to do. Not that I was cool at all in high school.
When I was young I loved to act. I think I liked it because I was generally sort of shy and weird, and this offered me a respite from my own narrative, which I found uncomfortable or at the very least not very interesting. I was writing a lot from a young age, and I just found that I have a strong corporeal relationship with my writing. As in, it feels so my voice, and so part of myself, that it seemed natural for me to be the one to read it, to act in it.
To clarify: I don’t think I’m an amazing actor! I’m very specific about projects I take or even audition for because I’m very bad at conforming completely to something that doesn’t feel genuine or exciting. So that’s why I write for myself. Because I want roles that I am actually really invested in. That I know I’ll do a good job on.
Q: What are your hopes and ambitions for the future?
A: I’m shooting my first feature in August! I wrote it, will be directing it, and will be acting in it. So will my little sister. This is a straight narrative. No sci-fi. It’s very indie/low budget. It’s mostly friends acting in it.
I think my goal right now is to work on half sci-fi projects, half narratives throughout my life, trading off or making projects as opportunities arise. I use sci-fi elements when I think it furthers a very human narrative element I’m interested in exploring, but I don’t think I’d ever write anything just for the sake of being sci-fi (unless someone gave me money). The Terrestrials was my first sci-fi project, so I’m quite new to the genre, and I’m eager to film a scene that’s just two young people talking in an apartment, and not needing a glitching bed or floating semen.
This very important to me. It’s about being bi-racial, contemporary Asian-American culture, and being a young woman finishing college. It’s sort of inspired by all these things that happened to me my last week at NYU. I’m hesitant to say too much more. But I’m calling it mumblecore for people of color.
After that I’m basically going immediately to grad school, which I’m now seeing as a semi-random decision. I’m going to Columbia for non-fiction writing. I don’t even know how to explain that to, like, relatives in China. I think I’m just going to have to come out with a book or something substantial after and then people will get it. I have some ideas for a book that incorporates photography. I love school. I’m excited to be in a classroom and make new friends.
For the far far future, I want to make a sci-fi feature. I’ve started writing one that is similar to The Terrestrials in a lot of ways. But I’m waiting for a full production budget before going any further with it, which I think I’m worthy of. If this film doesn’t prove I’m ready, I don’t know what will.