On the evening of 30 September 2017, a long queue of mostly LGTBQ men dressed in leather attire had formed outside the Playhouse theatre during the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF). Not knowing too much about the film Tom of Finland and the story it told, this scene unfolding in front of the cinema seemed rather curious and maybe more so something you would encounter on a night out in one of Vancouver’s gay clubs. However, after seen the film, it all made a lot more sense.
With Tom of Finland, Dome Karukoski, engagingly tells the life story of Touko Laaksonen (1920-1991), a Finnish artist known for his gay erotic art and emancipation of gay culture. Starting with flashbacks to Touko’s time in the Finnish army during the second World War (which will reappear throughout the film), the viewer is quite quickly introduced, in an explicit but playful manner, to the fact that Laaksonen and many of his comrades are gay. Then, switching to post-war Finland we learn more and more about Laaksonen’s life living with his sister and working as an art director for an advertising company. As the film unfolds, spectators will slowly come to unearth the Finnish history regarding the acceptance of gays and gay culture and the onset of fetishism in an emotional but still often whimsical way.
Aside from having told a compelling, dramatic, historic and emancipator story, this film has done more. On the night of the screening of Tom of Finland the VIFF and the Playhouse theatre functioned as an agora where groups as well as individuals could interact in a common and meaningful way. The film has brought together a community, with shared experiences, that together celebrated one of the frontrunners and emancipators of their subculture. And to those outside that particular community, it has raised awareness and a cultural history regarding said community and emancipation. It yanked various urban citizens out of their safe bubble of likeminded and similar people, but succeeded in constructing a renewed sense of community. This raises further questions about the relationship between such a digital agora and the tangible urban landscape. How can a virtual forum in relation to the urban built environment create such a sense of community? And how can institutions and urban planners allow for this creation of commons?
According to Martin Scorsese ‘now more than ever we need to talk to each other, listen to each other and understand how we see the world, and cinema is the best medium for doing this’. In these times when various groups in society are drifting further apart, and when we are seemingly losing a common understanding of human values and community, it is of great importance that we recognize the ability of for example the visual arts to recreate such a common understanding and shared experience. The story of Touko Laaksonen specifically has learned us to value difference and to accept others the way they are. And maybe more importantly it has taught us that there should not be space for any hatred. As this film has showed, coming to a renewed sense of community through culture should not be achieved through overtly convincing others of one’s points of view and histories in either public or political debates, rather it is just a matter of sitting down and watching.