“There’s always a minority that is afraid, and conveys their anger to the majority. It’s so shameful,” explains award-winning filmmaker Dome Karukoski, casually speaking over hot chocolate in a bustling café. As Finland formally becomes the 12th European state to recognize same-sex marriage as a legal right, Karukoski looks back at how far his home country has come since the troubling post-war years.
“2017 Finland is…I’m proud of the country. It’s liberal, we finally got the same-sex marriage. If you look at Finland, I know that there’s a lot of people that are ashamed of the country because of us not being able to, you know, legitimize same-sex marriage earlier. I think it’s accidental that this film comes on our 100th birthday.”
Karukoski’s latest film, Tom of Finland, is a moving biopic of decorated war hero, art director, and illustrator, Touko Laaksonen. Known for his sexually liberating drawings of muscular gay men, each signed “Tom of Finland,” Touko Laaksonen courageously sparked a leather-clad LGBT revolution with the playful stroke of his pencil.
“It was interesting because I never really knew his background. When you Google ‘Tom of Finland’ you get millions of millions of hits. When you Google ‘Touko Laaksonen’ you get a few,” laughs the director. “Being in art school, I of course knew the value of the drawings and the artistry in it. But I didn’t know the history behind. I didn’t know his personal history.”
Starring Finnish actor Pekka Strang in the lead role, Tom of Finland reveals the man behind the artwork. Artwork that was, according to 1950’s Finnish standards, against the law. As gay men all around him are persecuted, Touko finds the strength to continue creating his art, and more importantly, continue to embrace his own forward-thinking mind by forming bonds with other closeted gay men and founding motorcycle clubs…even without any motorcycles.
“The courage he must have had, what he did, when it was illegal. When basically being gay was illegal, considered a sickness. It’s a very heroic story,” explains Karukoski. “I’ve also considered myself as a very shameless person. I wouldn’t say I provoke people, but I try to provoke myself. Even though there’s shame about myself, I try to go towards it. It is part of my artistry, to help me as a filmmaker. I related very much to Tom’s story about that. He was a shameless person.”
The half-Cypriot, half-American filmmaker is known for immersing himself in his work, covering every detail, no matter how small, to deliver a rich and enjoyable story. This is a labor of love, as any filmmaker will explain, but few filmmakers walk away from it and receive such incredible recognition for their work. To date, Karukoski’s feature films have garnered over 33 nominations from the Finnish National Film Awards, as well as prizes from every continent. Tom of Finland is already generating considerable acclaim as it tours the globe.
“What an interesting character. The idea of making a film started about him, you know. A character-based drama because his story was so interesting,” explains the director. “Of course when you are making a film, you can’t just admire. You can’t put a person on a pedestal or make him a statue. You have to grind the dramatics of the film. That was maybe the most difficult part of this film.”
The film portrays much of Touko Laaksonen’s personal life in beautifully photographed time period piece. Many of Karukoski’s shots are composed with incredible artistry, while the dramatizations of Touko’s interactions with his sister, his friends, and his lover meld into a captivating storyline that presents the audience with an unobstructed peek at how Tom of Finland’s personal life may have really been. Karukoski’s work is dynamic, yet honest and approachable.
The director explains, “It’s really difficult, ok, you think ‘how do we create the character, how do we create the inner antagonism of the person?’ Building the dramatic work in the film, finding the antagonism is not within. I think that is also the cliché of the gay film. The cliché of gay film is, you know, a young man struggling about his sexuality, whereas Tom never had that. So the film mustn’t be about that. It becomes the struggle of an artist. It becomes a societal story.”
As dozens of societies around the globe are rewriting the chapter on same-sex marriage, one can’t help but feel a kinship with the young artist Touko Laaksonen. For it was our friend, Tom of Finland, who first dared to change society from a creaky drawing desk in the humble apartment he split with his sister. For the sake of society, let’s never stop drawing.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Protagonist Pictures