Julie Sokolow has a knack for finding amazing stories hiding in plain sight.

Until recently, she found them mostly in Pittsburgh. That’s changed with the success of Woman on Fire, her movie about the first openly transgender firefighter in New York Citya third-generation firefighter and child of a 35-year FDNY veteran, lieutenant and survivor of 9/11. It brought her national attention and a busy itinerary on the film festival circuit.

But most of her lovingly composed, enormously empathetic portraits begin in Pittsburgh. There’s the awkward, talented writer with Asperger Syndrome and his quixotic quest for connection in Aspie Seeks Love. There’s the doctor who, after a long day at the hospital, dresses like a homeless person and spends long nights treating the pained and forgotten denizens of Pittsburgh’s streets in Street Doctor. There’s the series of short films, Healthy Artists, about how self-employed artists struggle to pay for healthcare.

One of Sokolow’s best short films is called The John Show, which depicts one of the defining moments of Pittsburgh’s arts community in recent years. It’s screening as part of the long-running local film showcase Film Kitchen, at Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ Melwood Screening Room in Oakland, on Tuesday, March 14. (More screenings are scheduled for April. See below.)

The John Show is about a remarkable artist, John Riegert, and the extraordinary measures a friend of his would take to bring him out of a period of despair.

Riegert’s restless creativity, kindness and bushy-bearded visage have long been a familiar presence in Pittsburgh’s arts scene. But a traumatic incident from his childhood continued to haunt him, and he attempted suicide.

His friend, a graphic designer named Brett Yasko, had the ridiculous idea of asking 400 artists, across all media, to create original portraits of John for an exhibition. More than half took him up on it.

“Brett always jokes there are Presidents with less portraits than John Riegert,” says Sokolow. It was a way to usher John back into the art scene. I couldn’t wait to see this funhouse of 250 portraits of this one person.”

Sokolow followed John around as he was put on film, on canvas, computer animated, stitched onto pillows—posing for close-up portraits, nudes, whatever the parade of artists asked of him. Sokolow began as one of the artists in the show but found herself drawn to document the whole project.

The John Show. Image courtesy of Julie Sokolow.
The John Show. Image courtesy of Julie Sokolow.

It was all brought together for a show at SPACE Gallery, Downtown, in summer 2016, where the many visions of John adorned the walls and floors—and the real John was wandering around, a bit bewildered but happy. There’s also a book in the works.

“It’s kind of taken over a lot of people’s lives, in a good way,” says Sokolow.

Woman on Fire movie poster, courtesy of Julie Sokolow.
Woman on Fire movie poster, courtesy of Julie Sokolow.

Another short film that’s going to be part of the Film Kitchen screening on the 14th is the character study The Wizard, Oz by filmmaker Danny Yourd. It’s about a Californian, Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, who considers himself an actual wizard. It’s a story almost too strange to believe, involving lots of hippies, true love (with a witch, of course), a business breeding unicorns (!), and a serial killer.

Yourd, who produced Sokolow’s full-length doc Woman on Fire, is best known for Blood Brother, about a young man from Pittsburgh who left his life to begin anew in an orphanage for HIV-positive children in India. It won the Sundance 2013 Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award.

The rest of the bill includes a sci-fi short, Echo Torch, by Chris Preksta (best known as the director of Pittsburgh Dad), and Kristen Lauth Shaeffer’s dark comedy Mercury in Tuna. Shaeffer is a professor at Chatham University.

Since all the films have psychological themes, the program will include a guest speaker talking about creativity and psychology.

“We’re having a brief talk from someone from the Duquesne University Psychology Clinic,” says Sokolow. “It’s a sliding-scale clinic that is super-affordable and has helped me and a lot of people that I know.”

It’s a theme that she has returned to again and again in her films.

“I’ve long wondered why so many creative people struggle with mental health,” says Sokolow. “I think it’s that double-edged sword of creativity. Your imagination is vivid, and it lets you create meaningful work, but it can also promote anxieties and fears and let you dwell on the negative side of life. A sensitive individual who feels the highs and lows of existence.”

Tickets for the March 14 Film Kitchen are $5 each, and include free food and drink from 7-8 p.m., followed by screenings and a Q&A with some of the filmmakers from 8-9:30 p.m. The event is supported in part by The Sprout Fund.

More screenings of The John Show are planned, including one at the Documentary Salon at the Melwood Screening Room on April 13, and another at Row House Cinema in Lawrenceville, tentatively scheduled for April 14.

Sokolow’s Woman on Fire premiered at DocNYC, the country’s largest documentary film festival, in November. It was introduced by Chirlane McCray, First Lady of New York City (married to Mayor Bill DeBlasio).

“I read about her (Brooke Guinan) story and kind of stumbled upon it,” she says. “There was this viral poster image of her with her hands on her hips, with her long blond hair. I was taken by this image. ‘Wow, she’s the future. I want to live in that world.’”

Already, Sokolow has another film project she’s ready to start. Needless to say, making provocative, original documentaries isn’t the more lucrative end of filmmaking. It is where she’s happiest, though.

“Every job is stressful,” she says. “I’d rather be stressed out about not having enough funding (for a film) than about not doing the right thing for my life. This feels like the right thing.”

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.