Tom of Finland: A Film About Liberation
By Andrew Belonsky
Director Dome Karukoski's long birth name -- Thomas August George -- sounded odd to his classmates in Finland, where his American father and British mother raised him. Coupled with his Anglo accent, this moniker brought years of childhood ridicule, but eventually earned him the nickname he now prefers to use.
"When I was 12, the girls trash-talked the name 'Dome' from Thomas, but I took part," Karukoski explains, whose first name ends on an upward lilt, as in "Dom-e," rather than the flat-sounding shape "dome." "It became part of my identity, because when you have a nickname, you're accepted. I wasn't so bullied anymore."
The fact that Karukoski (pictured above) embraced and celebrated his difference is analogous to the story of another Finnish man, Touko Laaksonen, the artist best known as Tom of Finland and who is the subject of the 36-year-old filmmaker's first English-language feature. (Not to be confused with the other film about Tom of Finland.)
A Finnish advertising artist who fought heroically for his country during World War II, Touko Laaksonen lived most of his early life in the closet. "He had a wonderful time being homosexual during wartime, because the city was blackened and, even though homosexuality was illegal, people would look through their fingers," Karukoski says of the "every man needs a hand" culture that arises in wartime. "But then, after the war, when every man wasn't needed anymore, he had to hide himself again."
Laaksonen found release in creating proudly erotic art, most of which sprang from his own desires and experience with virile men in uniform. "His art was joyful. It was playful," Karukoski explains. "It was a positive way of showing homosexual art at a time when a lot of [gay] art was ashamed or had a dark tone."
Executive producer Aleksi Bardy agrees: "The idea behind the images is that during the times of oppression and denial and secrecy, he drew pictures of joyous men who were enjoying themselves as they were. Instead of complaining about something, he was showing that it could be different."
Though originally created for himself, in the 1950s, as the gay publishing scene was coming into its own, Laaksonen adopted the Tom of Finland moniker and sent his work to editors. The first pieces were printed in a spring 1957 edition of Physique Pictorial. They were a hit and helped Tom completely upend popular imagery of gay men.
His most famous character, Kake, was butch and cocky and wasn't afraid of his masculine energy. Nor were his sexual partners. Kake soon became an archetype, one embraced by gay men the world over. "Kake allowed homosexuals to take that leather jacket and dress as they want to dress," Karukoski says. "In a way, creating an archetype was really a great and magnificent thing."
To get to know that character, Karukoski and Bardy will soon travel to Los Angeles to interview Tom's old friends and associates and to meet with their collaborators from the Tom of Finland Foundation, the non-profit Tom founded before his 1991 death. "We didn't want to do the film without them," Karukoski says.
Although Karukoski only has a treatment and raw synopsis for the movie at the moment, he explains that they're looking for two actors: a young, 18-to-early-twenties Tom, and an older Tom. Karukoski won't say whether the movie will bring us to the point of Tom's 1991 death in Helsinki, but he did provide a clue: "We're not doing a film that starts when he's 12 and ends when he's dying. We're doing a film of certain sequences that we feel are important for the character."