Blooming in Suburbia: Gabriel Carrubba on Sunflower
Critics Campus 2023 participant Erika Lay speaks to writer/director Gabriel Carrubba about his debut feature, a queer coming-of-age story set in a far-flung suburb of Melbourne.
Gabriel Carrubba’s searing debut feature Sunflower (2023) is at once a deeply intimate memento of outer Melbourne suburbia and a poignant portrait of queer coming-of-age. Deeply sensitive to the languages of queer male desire, gaze and bodily performance, the film’s coming-out narrative unravels the visceral intensities of the personal into the universal. For Carrubba, Sunflower marks the beginning of an emergent filmmaking practice that acts as a memorandum of the truth – one attuned to the political possibilities of the poetic.
You’ve had experience across various facets of filmmaking, from writing and acting to directing. What made you want to get behind the camera?
I watched The 400 Blows (1959), François Truffaut’s first film. I had been acting previously and wasn’t finding much luck in getting work as an actor, but I loved film and knew I wanted to be involved in filmmaking. I enrolled at JMC Academy, a film school in South Melbourne, wanting to be a writer/director. About halfway through, I fell in love with cinematography and became obsessed with lenses and lighting, but eventually found this too scientific, too mathematical, for me. I preferred the emotional way of speaking and being with actors, and so I came out wanting to be a director once more. But I still hold a passion for setting up the frame, and the photographic nature of putting the camera somewhere for a reason.
Sunflower’s cinematography is attuned to the physicality of Melbourne’s landscapes and suburbia. What was the thought process behind evoking queer coming-of-age through these landscapes?
The most important thing was to stay as close to the truth of my experiences as possible. I was born and raised in Berwick, in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne; so this meant shooting [Sunflower] in the home I grew up in, the streets where my friends and I would hang out, and in the primary school and high school I went to. My cinematographer, Martine Wolff, and I wanted to capture the feeling of suburbia, and wanted it to feel like a memory – to feel its warmth. Middle-class suburbia is often ignored when it comes to Australian cinema. Berwick can be quite a conservative suburb, and I wanted to show the people of Berwick: These people exist in our suburb. It’s not so black-and-white.
There are evocative scenes of Leo (Liam Mollica) standing amid a field of sunflowers. Tell us more about this scene.
When I think about a sunflower that hasn’t bloomed yet, I think it’s quite an ugly-looking flower. That’s how I felt inside as a teenager: disgusting and ugly, like I was a monster who didn’t deserve to live. When a sunflower blooms, it’s really beautiful; that’s what coming out can be like. It’s not like that for everyone. But I really wanted to showcase the truth of my experience, which was quite positive, and to show kids that: Hey, there’s someone who’s been through life who understands and can look at you and still love you for who you are. Initially, the first draft of the film wasn’t positive, because I was going through a lot; but my cast and crew pointed me in the direction of writing the truth, and the truth was positive.
Body language and performance are central to expressions of gender and sexual identity in Sunflower; for example, Boof (Luke J Morgan) wears this tense performance of hypermasculinity. What went into conveying this through the screen?
It was very important for all the actors that I cast – especially for Luke Morgan, who plays Boof. Luke came to me in the beginning and said, “I grew up in a small town called Albany; I knew a lot of guys like this, and I know exactly how we can work on this.” Just yesterday, Luke pointed out to me, “If you go to a local football club and you watch two men speak to each other, they’re always shoulder to shoulder; they’re never facing each other.” It’s very different when you see women speak to each other; they’re always facing each other, and looking each other in the eye.
I’m not really sure where it comes from. A lot of guys put on a façade like this – it’s almost like before they go out, they put on a mask: This is how I have to behave, because I’m a man. The whole idea of trying to hide something that’s even slightly feminine is sexist as well, because what is being said is that femininity is bad.
As a queer voice and filmmaker, how do you hope for Sunflower to resonate across the queer and questioning community, as well as more general audiences?
I hope it builds empathy. Tolerance and true acceptance are two very different things; I hope the film can move people into not just tolerance, but wholehearted acceptance of the fact that this person has gone through a lot, and that it isn’t a choice – you can’t change who you are.
After we made the film, it dawned on me that this film is for parents, as well. Sometimes, the old-school way of parenting involves this idea of suburban normalcy: seeing your child’s whole life before them, the person they’re going to marry, that they’re going to have kids. I hope Sunflower shows parents: Hey, maybe your kid isn’t like this. I hope it encourages parents to stop putting pressure on kids, because it can be damaging as they get older and realise they’re not inclined in that way.
What are your next steps after Sunflower?
I want to explore my childhood – the period of boyhood in my life between the ages of 10 to 12. Not everything in my next film will be as autobiographical as Sunflower; it will lean more on the side of fiction, but there will still be elements of truth. I find it difficult to write anything where there’s no element of truth. I don’t think I’ll ever be a genre writer – I don’t have it in me.