When Kit Zauhar began marketing her debut feature film Actual People on the festival circuit, she referred to it as “mumblecore for people of color.”
“I don’t regret many things in life, but that’s a really big one,” Zauhar says. “People feel very precious about the word ‘mumblecore’ and have specific ideas about what that genre is and should be. It’s not even a canon I necessarily want to belong to.” Wikipedia defines the term as “a subgenre of independent film characterized by naturalistic acting and dialogue, low-budget film production, an emphasis on dialogue over plot, and a focus on the personal relationships of young adults.”
Zauhar admits that Actual People, which screens at Waters Edge Cinema on May 13 as part of her current residency at Twenty Summers in Provincetown, draws much of its inspiration from early 2000s microbudget coming-of-age films like Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha. Zauhar’s film traces the final week of school for NYU philosophy major Riley — played by Zauhar in a mesmerizing performance — whose postgrad plans are in disarray after a long-term boyfriend, with whom she had planned to move to Seattle, breaks up with her for a girl he met in his first (and only) economics class.
Thrust into a state of existential dread, Riley strives for whatever stability she can get. But the more she tries to settle things, the more they slip out from under her in a comedy of seemingly self-inflicted errors: she forgets about her final paper until the day it’s due; a request from her male roommate to put on pants in common living spaces devolves into Riley being asked to move out of the apartment; and a last-ditch effort to woo a one-night stand in her hometown of Philadelphia ends in humiliation and a teary-eyed group hug from her family.
Zauhar says the story is somewhat autobiographical: “I did have a crazy last week of school where I was being insane and messy and tracking down a guy I was seeing in an attempt at stability.” But the events depicted in the film are fictional. “I started from the end of the story and worked backwards, thinking about how to set up all these roadblocks for Riley,” she says.
Zauhar began writing Actual People after she graduated from NYU in 2017. She knew she wanted to make a feature-length film but didn’t have the money to fund it. “I started looking at independent films to see how they were able to pull it off for very little money,” says Zauhar. Mumblecore films became her inspiration, and she wanted to subvert the genre.
“Small stories like these often belong in the wheelhouse of white people,” she says. “For people of color, you have these massive, historically contextualized, and often traumatic narratives. And then some white person gets to tell this story that’s like, ‘I was really horny for this one person and thought about life the whole time,’ and it gets to be a movie.”
Zauhar adds that, although she’s Asian-American, and the film deals partly with the subtly racist comments her character frequently received from white classmates, the film is not about being Asian-American. “I’m fundamentally not interested in identity politics in my work,” she says. “I just want to make stories where people happen to not be white.”
Shot over 10 days in the summer of 2019 with equipment borrowed from Zauhar’s job at a TV show, the film’s total budget was $10,000. The cast was made up almost entirely of her friends.
“It was basically an excuse for us to hang out for an extended period,” Zauhar says.
On any film set, time is the greatest resource, but “we didn’t have that resource,” says Zauhar. “We were kind of just thrown into filming, which really created a sense of spontaneity. The scenes have this level of imperfectness that I’ve really come to like.” She calls the experience of making Actual People a “once-in-a-lifetime thing, and definitely something I can’t do again without resources. You kind of have to call in every favor.”
During one of the last days of filming, the car driving the crew around to different locations got a flat tire. Seconds later, a second tire popped. “We were all so tired at that point, and it was 95 degrees out,” Zauhar recalls. “We were just rolling the car down the side of the road, and everyone would stop and say, ‘You have two flat tires!’ And we were like, ‘Yeah we know.’ ”
Though the story is funny in hindsight, Zauhar says that it marked a low point in the film’s production at the time. “I had a breaking point and kind of lost a lot of hope,” she says. “I had to be dragged out of it by my team.”
The following year, Zauhar edited the film in her spare time while studying in an M.F.A. program in nonfiction writing at Columbia University. Halfway through post-production, she ran out of money. Then the pandemic hit, and she filed for unemployment. “I used all of my unemployment money to fund the rest of the film,” she says. “I knew it was going to be okay, but it was still scary.”
Actual People premiered at the Locarno Film Festival in 2021 and went on to garner accolades at the Milan Film Festival, Indie Memphis, and BAMcinemaFest in New York. Zauhar’s second film, This Closeness, premiered at South by Southwest in Austin earlier this year. She hopes to spend her weeklong residency at Twenty Summers working on a collection of essays, which she describes as “modern-day creation myths” about how she came to understand the world.
Zauhar sees writing as a way to interrogate her ideas of people — which her film work explores as well. “I like looking at patterns of behavior and what they say about people as a whole,” Zauhar says. “It’s almost anthropological, constructing stories based on what is basically daily field research.”
The event: Screening and discussion of Kit Zauhar’s film Actual People, part of the Twenty Summers series
The time: Saturday, May 13, 1 p.m.
The place: Waters Edge Cinema, 237 Commercial St., Provincetown
The cost: $20 suggested donation; see 20summers.org for information