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Le Panoptique

Expires on 25 March 2025 at midnight (EST)

Between Pitfalls and Closenesses

By Simon Laperrière

Using the pointless hours of the afternoon to hang out at the park. Partying midweek without worrying about tomorrow’s classes. Leaving your roommates and joining others to better flee from stability. Dreaming about the future while playing grownup. How boring it is to be 20!

Kit Zauhar’s cinema picks apart the deceptive notion of "the best years of our lives." At odds with America’s cherished coming-of-age tradition, her short and feature films directly address the end of adolescence. Any potential romanticism is categorically flushed out. This multitalented artist (director, screenwriter and performer) chooses to depict these crucial times with crude, uneasy realism instead. Her characters constitute an array of loathsome individuals for whom the future is synonymous with doubt and insomnia. Their transition to adulthood – should it ever happen – is never achieved painlessly but involves social pressure, a bruised ego and a heap of empty bottles. People rarely learn from their mistakes as they do in Kit Zauhar’s films. They keep repeating them, without really noticing, hoping that time will heal all wounds. In the end, nothing improves. They grow old without growing up.

The existential angst that permeates Zauhar’s work is a product of its era. There is no need to delve into any sociohistorical studies to demonstrate that the phase following adolescence (early adulthood) appears in the 20th century. To put it another way, Baudelaire’s generation suffered from spleen, and Kit Zauhar’s is suffering from anxiety. The director insightfully captures this complex state of mind caused by the dilemma between the chicken and the egg. Riley, the protagonist of Actual People, epitomizes this psychic disorder plaguing today’s youth. Being a student with an impulsive temperament, she can’t help projecting her doubts unto others. When we first met her, she was on the verge of completing a nebulous college degree in New York. The following step torpefies her. As her classmates prepare to move into the job market, Riley is faced with uncertainty. Since a misfortune never comes alone, she also counts the weeks before she must find a new apartment. Not knowing where to go, Riley decides to tread water—getting drunk in joyless parties, irrationally hanging on to a hopeless fling and avoiding her parents’ gaze. A humdrum routine during which she fights constantly, the most important conflict being the battle she wages against herself.

Actual People may be a self-portrait (Zauhar plays the main part), it still possesses a sociological scope. Riley’s setbacks are symptomatic of the mental burden experienced by so many spoilt kids. Broadly conscious of their privilege, their distress is no less sincere. A common distress, expressed through scathing words and inappropriate gestures. Everybody goes through an identity crisis while trying to comply with the expectations of capitalist society. Being of Asian descent, Riley struggles to define herself as a person of color. Her narcissism unfortunately prevents her from acknowledging that her worries are perfectly normal. With her first feature, Kit Zauhar indirectly argues that there is no fulfillment without communication. People need to coexist to feel good about themselves.  

Only an outstanding screenwriter can generate empathy for despicable individuals. And Zauhar easily meets this challenge by relying on tongue-in-cheek humor. Unafraid of self-irony, she stages herself in humiliating situations that would rival even Larry David. In Actual People, a short visit home is enough to cause a breakdown. Sitting around the same table, Riley’s relatives are at daggers drawn. Tension starts to build thanks to a cleverly orchestrated long take. We are kept in a state of expectation for an inescapable clash entailed by every biting dialogue. Riley then emerges as the funambulist of fights. Faced with adversity, she displays an admirable sense of repartee. Hence, there is a certain pleasure in watching her pick fights.
 


THE TERRESTRIALS

ACTUAL PEOPLE
 

The present issue derives from a concern with authenticity. This desire urges the director to embrace a deliberately minimalist aesthetic. The camera simply follows the actors, hence posing as the detached observer of a straightforward routine. Such verisimilitude also derives from the naturalistic style of her performers and the use of natural settings. Hence the frequent comparisons between Kit Zauhar’s work and mumblecore, an independent American film movement that blossomed in the early 2000s. Although these penniless productions – including d’Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Haha(2002), Lynn Sheton’s We Go Way Back (2006)and Joe Swanberg’s Full Moon (2011) trilogy – share many common traits with Actual People, the director is the first to question this lineage. In an interview with Panorama-cinéma, she severely critiques such hasty categorization. Let us then eschew any shortcut by inviting you to discover her early work in all its singularity.

This Panoptique lineup is first and foremost an homage to a promising start, that of an emerging artist with the wind in her sails. It also ties into our cinephilic mission to scour new releases and spot tomorrow’s talent; especially since Zauhar’s films have never been screened in Quebec. While we wishfully wait for This Closeness’ release, dive into a world of school corridors, chance encounters and awkward misunderstandings (the short film Helicopter [2016]). A world in which a surprising detour through sci-fi (the whimsical The Terrestrials [2018]) tackles a tangible feeling of solitude. Follow Riley in her quest for meaning at the heart of the Big Apple, searching for light in the depths of despair (in Actual People [2021]). You are at Kit’s, at the crossroads, but in excellent company. The road will be bumpy, the destination unclear. The future, fortunately, is already bright.

 

--> Our interview with Kit Zauhar on Panorama-cinéma [French only] <--