Tom of Finland: A Q&A with director Dome Karukoski and lead actor Pekka Strang


This summer, San Francisco AIDS Foundation sponsored the film Tom of Finland at the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film festival Frameline. Tom of Finland, directed by Dome Karukoski and starring Pekka Strang, shares the story of Touko Laaksonen, an artist from Finland who produced erotic drawings of masculine gay men during a time when gay men lived in fear and homosexuality was reviled. The story follows Tom from the repressive Finnish society of the 1950s to the sexual revolution and life in California in the 1970s. 

To lead up to the opening of the film, Patrick Finger, the executive director of Folsom Street Events interviewed director Dome Karukosi and lead actor Pekka Strang about the film. Tom of Finland opens October 20, 2017 at Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco and Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley

Patrick: What inspired you to make this film about Tom of Finland?

Dome: We started research in 2011 [with] the writer Aleksi Bardy and quickly learned his personal story was really cinematic. There was just a lot to it and doing a biopic is kind of a world of its own. Especially to find the emotional core of the story and hold that for two hours. You take the most dramatic things of his story and know how to make them count but also realize you have to balance that with what brings the story cinematically forward and I really think his story is incredible. So we separated the story into five segments that we knew were important for Tom and were also inspirational for him: war, post-war, meeting his partner Veli and two segments in the US. And designed the film with the DoP [director of photography] to be a journey from darkness to light.

Touko found his voice as an artist in post-war Finland. That was a time when it was illegal to be gay (until 1971) and even more so, it was 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. These men on his pictures are with no shame, they are full of joy. I believe anyone looking at his images can feel the pride the men he has drawn have. In a broader sense, long to feel free as themselves. It makes his art not only explosive and always in context with contemporary audience, but also universal. It inspired us to make a story of freedom of speech, a story of a person sticking to who he is, no matter what the circumstances. A story of courage. 

Pekka: Tom's art has had a tremendous impact all over the world but not many have known about the artist. It was about time. 

Patrick: As a younger person, Tom’s work was what got me involved in the leather/fetish world. It was the catalyst that got my attention. Do you think his work still resonates with the younger generation? 

Dome: I think Tom of Finland’s work left an ever-lasting effect on the fashion world and on to pop culture in general. There is always someone in every new generation who listens to Queen and starts researching where those incredible leather pants [came] from and makes one wonder if they feel as sexy in them as Freddy or Tom’s men do. But I believe his work in general resonates with the younger generations as you can not look away from that joy those images depict and not sense that freedom. The world is in a turmoil and even if it feels there is more LGBT rights considered than ever, there are unfortunately still a lot of places which have not caught up with the normality, really. And from that perspective, that type of pride of being who you are, is always welcome. It will always resonate. 

Pekka: At least in Finland I can see that his work is considered as a symbol of sexual liberation. So yes, I think he is highly relevant today also. Maybe his art has become a symbol of the history of gay revolution. 

Patrick: What’s been the reaction to the film, inside and outside the leather community? 

Dome: I don’t think there is ever one reaction from an audience. People are different and have different tastes. Over all it has been quite positive. Barber-Pete, who has Tom of Finland tattooed in his back and is the Tom of Finland fan number 1 gave the film five stars. That tap on the shoulder was all I needed to feel comfort. 

Pekka: I dare not to speak on behalf of the audience. Let’s just say that I'm flattered by the attention.  

Patrick: As participation in Up Your Alley and Folsom Street Fair grow, it’s clear that leather/fetish is becoming part of pop culture. Do you think this film will do the same for Tom's work? 

Dome: I have no doubts his work already is a part of the pop culture. Tom’s men have been in some of the most respectable galleries of the world, on Finnish stamps and everyday items. Fashion today has women and men wearing full leather gear for red carpet premiers or leather straps on evening gowns for just the cool of it. I actually hope that the film does more than that – I hope it allows to see a brilliant artist behind controversial images, but also a man, who longed to be loved and had lust. Like any of us. 

Pekka: That's a hard question. I hope people get to know Tom and the life he lived. At least for me it seems to have been such an amazing life. Starting from a small village in Finland and ending up changing the world.  

Patrick: Do you think this film will change the minds of straight (or non kinky people) on the differences between porn and art? 

Dome: I do not know if changing one’s mind is that easy, but I sincerely believe more openness would do good to this world. At least I hope it helps people to understand why Tom’s work is art and not just “porn”. 

Pekka: Yes, I do. 

Patrick: As you worked on the film, what surprised you about Touko Laaksonen, as a character, as a man, as an icon? 

Dome: To be honest, so much! Every time you thought you are starting to know him (as I could from “distance” of a kind) some new bits of information emerged, proving me, that he was always more than I pictured. I didn’t know that an Orthodox Jew helped Tom in the moment of despair, I didn’t know of all the kindness he had and how he and his friends helped each other during hardships. The camaraderie. And I didn’t know how Tom felt guilt for AIDS and he stopped drawing. And then he fought against it. He started the “Use a rubber campaign” and went onwards drawing images of men who has passed away and gave those to their lovers who had been left behind and I think there is something incredible in drawing them beautiful and proud. There were so many elements of his story that just couldn’t fit the two hours of screen time that we would of wanted to bring in. 

Pekka: His visionary talent. His courage and his skill. And also the impact his art has worldwide. 

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Tom of Finland opens October 20, 2017 at Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco and Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.

Patrick Finger is the executive director of Folsom Street Events, a San Francisco-based nonprofit whose mission is to create world-class leather and fetish events that provide the adult alternative lifestyle community with safe venues for self-expression. Folsom Street Fair is the grand finale of San Francisco Leather Week and the cornerstone fetish event of the year.

 

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