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Tom of Finland director: “I’m always happy to see art that provokes”

Marek Sabogal

Dome Karukoski is one of the most successful directors in Finland. His six feature films have all become blockbusters in his native country and he has more than 30 awards to his credit. 

He’s currently in post-production on a major biopic of Touko Laaksonen, the celebrated gay artist known to the world as Tom of Finland. In a major triumph, the film will be presented this year in the official program of Finland’s centenary as an independent country.

Of major significance to LGBT+ history, Tom’s homoerotic drawings were instrumental in transforming thousands of gay men’s lives throughout the 70s and 80s due to their unabashed depiction of gay sex as something to be celebrated, rather than something shameful. His impossibly handsome hunks, engaging in explicit gay sex, became the visual embodiment of the burgeoning gay liberation movement and led to a revolution in the way that gay men presented themselves to the world, as they consciously adopted Tom’s ‘macho’ signifiers in public – moustaches, flannel shirts, uniforms, boots and the like. His images of bikers, cowboys and leather-clad men stood apart from mainstream culture – they were untamed, strong and self-empowered.

“I’ve heard countless stories of men telling how they felt when they first saw Tom’s drawings and how that changed their lives,” Dome tells us. “Many said they left their previous lives to start afresh, often in LA or San Francisco. I can only imagine the self-empowering moment and the strength the drawings must have given to these men.

“We’ve tried to bring this into the film, with the help of people who actually changed their lives because of Tom. The Tom of Finland Foundation has been a great help when trying to access these stories.”

It’s heartening that this once-underground gay artist is now receiving official recognition in his home country, which points to the Finnish government’s progressive attitude to sociosexual politics. In 2014, Finland’s postal service released a line of stamps featuring Tom’s art, but supermarket chain Halpa-Halli refused to stock them, claiming they might offend customers.

“I’m always happy to see art that provokes,” smiles Dome. “In Tom’s case, it demonstrates the power of his imagery. I honestly don’t think that the stamps themselves are ‘too dirty’. Underwear ads or soda commercials can be dirtier. These complaints are really more because a gay person is getting his own stamp, which shakes the minds of the conservatives.”

Marek Sabogal

Screenwriter and producer of the film, Aleksi Bardy, maintains that this isn’t the tale of a victim of oppression – it’s the story of a hero who survives. Dome elaborates: “I think films are often made about sexual minorities where the protagonist is weak and oppressed, but what Tom did is so courageous that it’s impossible to think of him in that way. He made his art in a time when homosexuality was illegal and considered a sickness – when he might have lost his job if people around him had found out. He had great inner strength.”

Pekka Strang plays Tom, and Lauri Tilkanen plays his long-time partner and muse Veli. But were the actors aware of Tom’s art prior to signing up for the project?

“Yes, they did know his name and his art. Pekka went to the library to research. When he had got the two books by Tom, he had to pee and asked the librarian where the restroom was, with the books in his hand – you can imagine the librarian’s face!

“For me, it was very important that the chemistry of the actors playing Tom and Veli was sincere and that there was electricity between them. I needed to breathe heavily when I saw them kissing. There’s not that much information on Veli, so we’ve had to draw his character from the bits and pieces that were available. But the important thing is that this film’s Tom and Veli are the vision and interpretation of the film makers and actors.

“We can’t imitate real life. The film and its characters is a creation, not an imitation. As Tom drew his own world, we draw ours. We’ve created the characters with respect to them, but also so that their soul and actions best help the film. I honestly believe that the real life Tom and Veli would be proud of this.”

Swedish figure skater Niklas Hogner plays Kake, a figment of Tom’s erotic imagination. But how did this acting newcomer rise to the task of such an important and surrealist role?

“I’ve worked with non-actors before,” Dome explains. “They can often bring something virginal to the presence of the character. We had numerous auditions for the role, but after I saw Niklas I knew we’d found our Kake. Niklas had a great story and a smile to die for. It was pure instinct on my part, and luckily I didn’t have to be sorry about the choice.”

The film’s producer, Ingvar Þórðarson, has said that “the battle for equal rights for gay people is far from over and we have a responsibility to aid them in that. Tom of Finland will do a lot for that battle, I’m absolutely sure of it.”

“There are many ways to change the attitudes of society,” adds Dome. “One way is by being loud, proud, and like a stone wall. Then you throw a brick, or you dance like you’ve never danced before. Tom’s way was by ridiculing his oppressor. I can’t even count the amount of policemen having sex in his drawings – enjoying it, loving life. And that’s the essence of his art – joy! And it’s impossible to hate joy.”

As we gingerly take our first steps into 2017, it’s a sentiment we could do with remembering now more than ever.

Released 11 August. More information can be found here

Words Steve Cox

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