Pittsburgh filmmaker Julie Sokolow realized the focus of her next project when she saw a photo of Brooke Guinan, the first openly transgender firefighter in New York City.
“There’s this poster image of her for this LGBTQ campaign where she’s standing tall with her hands on her hips, long flowing hair, a firefighter helmet and a shirt that reads So Trans So What,” says Sokolow. “It blew my mind.”
With support from local production company Animal, Sokolow spent months traveling to and from New York City to capture Guinan’s story, often lugging bags of equipment on Amtrak trains and “depending on the kindness of strangers” to get by.
“Brooke would sometimes pick me up from Penn Station and drive me to her house and I’d stay there and camp out for weeks,” says Sokolow. “It was a very odd lifestyle.”
The completed work, a feature documentary titled Woman on Fire, officially debuted at the 2016 DOC NYC festival and received critical praise from major publications like The Village Voice. On August 25, the film will make its Pittsburgh premiere at the Carnegie Museum of Art.
While her previous films covered local characters, including Aspie Seeks Love, a documentary about the dating woes of a Pittsburgh writer with autism, Sokolow wanted to take a different approach.
“Up to that point I had only been telling the stories of Pittsburghers and artists, so this was a huge risk, being thrown into the completely alien world of firehouse culture,” says Sokolow, who admits that she felt intimidated by the idea of possibly critiquing an institution as highly regarded as the FDNY.
She wanted to convey the many different facets of Guinan’s life, including her romantic life with partner Jim Baker and her legacy as part of a multi-generational family of proud firefighters, as well as her work trying to recruit more women and LGBTQ people into the male-dominated FDNY.
“Getting to see Brooke’s story, you see that she has this amazing family and this full life, and has worked so hard to prove herself every step of the way, and had to work harder in a lot of instances to get the same opportunities that normative people have,” says Sokolow. “It gives you a lot of respect for her.”
She says the project fits in with her penchant for telling stories about “people who are in between these different worlds and being pulled in different directions, and having to forge their own way.”
Guinan not only had to contend with the masculine boys club of the FDNY, but with her fellow female firefighters, of which there are few (Sokolow points out that, at the time of filming, there were 44 women in FDNY’s force of 10,000).
“It took six months for [the United Women Firefighters] to vote her into their advocacy group because they weren’t sure if they should let a trans woman in,” says Sokolow.
She believes the film, as well as the event at the Carnegie Museum of Art, where Guinan is expected to appear, comes at a crucial time given the current political climate surrounding LGBTQ rights.
“It’s great to be having a screening right now when [President Trump] just said the horrible thing about banning transgender people from the military via Twitter,” says Sokolow, referring to a series of tweets Trump posted in July. A 2016 RAND study estimates that between 1,320 and 6,630 transgender people are currently serving in the military.
Sokolow hopes the film will show the biases transgender people still face when they’re just trying to do their jobs, whether it’s fighting wars or fighting fires.
“Wherever you stand politically, if your house is on fire, are you going to reject a trans person coming in to save you when that’s their job and they’re great at it? Probably not,” says Sokolow.
The Woman on Fire Pittsburgh premiere takes place at 7 p.m. in the CMOA Theater. The event includes a talk with Guinan and Baker and a post-film party with light refreshments and a cash bar. Tickets cost $15; $10 for Carnegie Museum members and students.