“Sebastian,” the feature debut of writer/director/star Carlos Ciurlizza, will have its U.S. premiere at Outfest on July 11.
The film is a poignant, sensitive drama about the title character (Ciurlizza) returning home to Peru to care for his ailing mother. In the small village, Sebastian reconnects with his ex-girlfriend Lucia (Katerina D’Onofrio), and rekindles some feelings they once shared. However, when Sebastian’s husband Josh (Burt Grinstead) arrives unexpectedly from Los Angeles, things become more complicated. The physical affection of these married men—holding hands or kissing in public, sharing a room in the town’s only hotel—creates gossip and discrimination. As Sebastian navigates his life in Peru with the man he loves, he must make some difficult choices.
Ciurlizza takes his time letting the story unfold, and this deliberate approach allows viewers to settle into the rhythm of the characters’ lives. The filmmaker spoke via Skype from Los Angeles, where he lives, to discuss “Sebastian.”
The film is very much a story of “belonging.” Why is this issue so important and so tied to sexual identity?
I think it’s something I deal with—it’s not autobiographical, but it’s a personal film. I’ve been in Los Angeles for eleven years now, and I go to Peru every year. Where do I fit? Should I go back? I have a good life in Peru; I’m in LA because of work. How do we deal with family telling you they are OK with you being gay and they hug you, but seeing you with your boyfriend and taking his hand and kissing him, is different, it changes things. I thought once I came out, all my problems would disappear, but they don’t.
Touching is a very important element in the film—especially hugging. What can you say about the demonstrative behavior in the film and how it pertains to Latin culture?
It’s part of life. I’m 34 years old and my mother still kisses me like I’m 5. With brothers and sisters, we’re very touchy-huggy people. We’re not afraid of the closeness.
Family is also a key theme in the film; the characters create their own families. Can you talk about this aspect of your film?
People say the machismo in Latin attitude comes from men, but women raise these men. I was raised by progressive women, including two women who worked in my house for 30 years. The women, who worked in our house, would sit at the table with us and know our secrets. They are the lions in the house—the protectors.
There’s a great line in the film when Sebastian says, he was a “maricon not because I like men, but because of people like you pushing me away, and the fear of society that sent me away.” What observations do you have about being gay and Peruvian?
Yes, Sebastian was open to running away because Peru is and ages behind other Latin American countries in terms of gay rights. Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Mexico are so far ahead of us. Peru is very Catholic and religion still influences the politics. The film hopefully will have a theatrical release in Peru. They think it’s very gay there, but in the U.S. it’s “not gay enough.” The last gay Peruvian film, “Undertow” is a masterpiece. [Director] Javier Fuentes-León said that “Sebastian” is the only film coming out of Peru in the past few years that deals with a gay story. Other filmmakers in Peru are gay, but they don’t want to make gay films. My short “Planet Rouge” was a gay story. My feature has a gay theme. Many gay and straight filmmakers have told me I don’t have to make a gay film. But I don’t want to apologize for making things that move me as an artist.
The film seems poised to change minds about homophobia, especially in small towns. What can you say about the impact this story might have?
I don’t know if I have that kind of power. The project started selfishly, as an opportunity to act in a role that would challenge me. I’m for gay rights, and I’m gay, but I don’t know that I sat down to write this to change minds. But I do want to say things about being courageous about who you are, and being able to stand in front of your parents and say not just “I’m gay,” but “this is who I am and I’m not afraid anymore.” I wanted people to chose to have the life and family they want to have.
How important is it to show a film like “Sebastian” in a festival like Outfest?
Outfest is the first gay festive we got in. It’s a big deal because five years ago, when I was coming out, a friend took me to Outfest to see “Undertow.” To be sitting in this theater at the DGA with 600 people, and to see how they reacted, and how well the film connected—I was so moved and proud it was a Peruvian film. I couldn’t move when the film ended. I had never experienced seeing a film with a packed gay audience. In my head, I’d hoped to be as good as that one day and come to Outfest. So here it is, five years later, and it’s like coming full circle. To be screening there, I am so humble and grateful. Out of all the gay fests….it is home for me. Friends I’ve known for years can come. It is a very big deal.