Breaking boundaries

The director of the new Tom of Finland biopic on capturing the gay liberation pioneer
By Thalia Chin | Film+TV | 14 August 2017

Top image: Still, ‘Tom of Finland’ (2017) dir. Dome Karukoski

Macho men with bulging muscles clad in pitch black leather and chains inspired by bikers, police, and military outfits: it’s an aesthetic totally synonymous with Finnish artist Touko Laaksonen aka Tom of Finland. In his new biopic, filmmaker Dome Karukoski traces Laaksonen’s tale, from being a captain in the Finnish army during the Second World War to breaking the boundaries of art and pornography via his stylised homoerotic illustrations.

In postwar Helsinki – “a time when it was illegal to be gay (until 1971) and was continued to be considered a sickness for the following decade” – Laaksonen was creating highly controversial imagery that subverted those who opposed him; taking military outfits – even Nazi uniforms – and turning them into fetish-wear. These works would later have an invaluable influence on gay identity and iconography. As a counterculture hero of gay liberation, Laaksonen’s uncompromising approach has inspired a multitude of works: from the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe to the flamboyant style of Freddie Mercury.

Starring Finnish born actor Pekka Strang, the film manages to evoke a beautiful sense of community and family amongst the community of men up against a sea of wartime madness and law enforcement. Placing images of wartime violence and erotic drawings of men in uniform side by side, the biopic creates a stirring depiction of Laaksonen’s resilience in the face of homophobia.

Here we speak to director Dome Karukoski about his revealing new film.

Thalia Chin: What drew you to Touko Laaksonen’s story?
Dome Karukoski: I was always a fan of his work, but especially when we started the research in 2011 with Aleksi Bardy (screenwriter), it really dawned on me that there were many factors to his life, that make not only a cinematic film but also a truly inspiring story. Touko found his voice as an artist in post-war Finland during a time when it was illegal to be gay (until 1971) and it continued to be considered a sickness for the following decade. It makes him an exceptional artist because he ridiculed the authorities in his work, the same ones that had oppressed sexual minorities – it made (and still does) his art explosive. But also the way he would portray gay men in broad daylight, with no shame. Full of joy. So it became a story of freedom and speech, with a protagonist that bore no shame. A story of a person who stuck to who he was, no matter what the circumstances.

Thalia: When did you first come across his work?
Dome: At quite a young age, I was around twelve when I first saw his work. I didn’t understand the sexuality of them then, it merely caused us young guys to giggle and wonder about the big dicks. I also remember when the news in Finland revealed that Tom of Finland was Touko Laaksonen, it came out when he passed away and it was a bit of a scandal as it was not a known fact. Later studying film and being in art school, I learnt more about his work and understood the artistry of it. Over the years, I have come across his art while traveling abroad too. He’s one of our most renowned artists.

“[He] was just a boy from Kaarina, who once said, “Maybe one day the Louvre will have a wall for me.” There is something profoundly human about his character.”

Thalia: The first time the audience is introduced to Laaksonen it’s as a captain serving his country in the Second World War. He then goes on to subvert stereotypes through his erotic drawings, can you tell me a bit more about Laaksonen’s character in the film?
Dome: His art represents courage, joy and the freedom of your own sexual desires. To not have shame, to be free of any chains holding oneself back. There is a sense of equality in his work that comes across especially well with the fun everyone is having, that was a big part of what his character had to mirror. He comes from darkness into light. He was a character that changed the lives of millions, a character who was just a boy from Kaarina, who once said, “Maybe one day the Louvre will have a wall for me.” There is something profoundly human about his character.

Thalia: Throughout the film images of war and discipline are intertwined with those of the erotic, how influential do you think Laaksonen’s past in the war was on his work?
Dome: We can see it clearly. His work is about authority. It’s about his love for uniforms, and also it was the most sexual time of his life. The stories of the city in blackout, this darkness and the unknown, he found it exiting. But the war itself was, of course, devastating. The later years after the war, the conservative silence of the society had a big effect on his work too.

“I want people to dance their way out of the cinema.”

Thalia: The way you bring his drawings to life – literally through physical characters – is incredibly powerful, what made you decide to do this?
Dome: We wanted to include homages to his art throughout the film. Sometimes it was just a feel, sometimes it meant adapting a composition from his drawings. Lasse Frank, our Cinematographer, is amazing and captured the sensibility and beauty of life. But we would also work on the whole backdrop – colour code different places and eras. Add in costume and design a texture which in overall would add to a feel, rather than an accurate depiction of the era. Using the anamorphic lenses to capture it, with a slight shift in portraying the cinematic reality, giving a sense of what influenced him at the time. Seeing it as a whole.

Thalia: The film produces a touching sense of community among these men who are viewed as banes of Finnish society, was it difficult to portray this balance?
Dome: Not really. We had a lot of men from the community in front of the camera. Almost everyday we had someone on set. It was about talking with them. Understanding the history. Understanding the feeling. Also the Tom of Finland Foundation was very helpful in telling stories regarding this feeling of helping each other.

Thalia: What do you hope the audience takes from watching this film?
Dome: I want them to enjoy the film. Tom wanted his audience to love and enjoy, so does this film. I want people to dance their way out of the cinema. I think it’s still quite difficult for a sixteen-year old living in a small city to come out, we hope that the film makes it easier; to gain courage, to have no shame.

Thalia: I understand you are currently working on a film about J. R. R. Tolkien, what attracts you to these biopics?
Dome: I always choose strong stories. A story must function even if you take out the name of the real life character in it. In Tom of Finland, I believe the story works well even to an audience who doesn’t know his art. Tom’s story is emotional, it’s about liberation, it’s about freedom and love. I don’t look it as a biopic at all, but as a good film.

Tom of Finland is out at cinemas and on demand from 11th August. 

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