NEW YORK — Tom of Finland almost wasn’t made due to the same stigma that once plagued its subject.
Dome Karukoski, the director of the film, described how he was surprised by how initially difficult it was to find financing for the production, which depicts the life of the famous gay artist and his drawings celebrating queer sexuality.
“We thought, originally, that financing this film will be easy, having such a brand … but his brand worked against us,” Karukoski said Sunday night at the Tribeca Film Festival premiere. “There was a lot of fears about whether it falls into something that can be shown in the cinemas. So it actually took us longer [than anticipated] to finance this movie.”
“There were a couple of financers that jumped immediately … but I think that the topic … it was difficult to portray or show it at this stage what kind of film we [were] making,” he added.
Tom of Finland is a sweeping biopic in the vein of The Imitation Game, which shows how Finnish artist Touko Laaksonen liberated a generation of gay men with his work. The film takes care to show how Laaksonen’s art was informed by and responded to gay stigma throughout history, from World War II to the AIDS crisis.
Of course, Laaksonen also experienced many hurdles in finding a means of distributing his work. As shown in the film, the artist had to meet with representatives of a black market of gay art in his earlier years due to society’s stigma.
During the Q&A at the screening, Karukoski outlined how Finland, until very recently, harshly penalized and persecuted its gay citizens. As an example, he pointed to a law similar to Russia’s “gay propaganda” restrictions that was on the books until 1999. He took a moment to recognize how extraordinary it was to show his film at a festival like Tribeca — a screening that not long ago, might have been subject to a police raid if it had occurred.
However, Karukoski also described an “explosive” embrace of Tom of Finland in recent years that has aligned with a new era of acceptance.
“It’s become quite mainstream,” he said of Tom of Finland's art, citing to examples of young people having skateboards emblazoned with his works. “Finnish feel proud about Tom at the moment.”
In fact, when the film opened in Finland earlier this year, it was number 2 in the country’s box office, second only to a children’s animated film. “Finland loves animation and drawings!” Karukoski quipped.
Karukoski also pointed to the Tom of Finland stamp released by the government in 2014 as another bellwether of progress.
“You can lick a man’s ass and send it to Russia,” he said.
Tom of Finland will debut in the U.S. in late 2017. Revisit the trailer below.