'The opposite of a victim'

Julie Sokolow on Woman On Fire and the story of Brooke Guinan.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Woman On Fire director Julie Sokolow:
Woman On Fire director Julie Sokolow: "I was like holy moly!, that's a trans woman who is coming into the spotlight first and foremost as a hero." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

DOC NYC will host tonight the world premiere of Woman On Fire, Julie Sokolow's remarkable portrait of a third-generation New York City firefighter which shows the relentless spirit and winning personality of Brooke Guinan, who is the first openly transgender member of the department.

At the Vulcan Productions reception where I spoke with The Ivory Game cinematographer/co-director Richard Ladkani, following the DOC NYC Short List Unfolding Stories panel, Julie, whose film is in the Metropolis competition, sheds some light on the journey for her and Brooke. Our conversation took place two days after it was announced that Hillary Clinton conceded the presidential election to Donald J Trump. With Michael Moore's plea still ringing in our ears from his film Michael Moore In Trumpland: "Don't trust these polls!".

FDNY firefighter Brooke Guinan:
FDNY firefighter Brooke Guinan: "She knows exactly what she is doing. She has a history studying gender studies." Photo: Brooke Guinan

Woman On Fire starts out as a family affair with Brooke's father, FDNY lieutenant George Guinan, mother Susan, her retired FDNY firefighter grandfather George and grandmother Charlotte, expressing their concerns while at the same time lovingly speaking about her as a young boy. Brooke's colleague Sarinya Srisakul, president of the United Women Firefighters, shows her unwavering full support and boyfriend Jim Baker stands by her side as their relationship evolves.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Brooke, your main character has been going through surgery?

Julie Sokolow: Brooke Guinan, the main subject of Woman On Fire, in the film you get to see her grappling with surgery coming up. One of the first stages of her many surgeries that will come to her full transition. But the film does not overly focus on that. It's really an aside now for us because her story is about so much more than that.

AKT: It's about firehouses and what it means to be from a firefighter family.

Brooke Guinan's T-shirt:
Brooke Guinan's T-shirt: "And I saw that image and I was like - because I'm a visual person - I was blown away."

JS: Yes! Yes, we really intentionally wanted to minimise the surgery in the film itself because that was actually the least interesting thing about her life.

AKT: How did you first get in touch with Brooke? How did this film start?

JS: Sure - the long-winded story or the short-winded story?

AKT: I don't know how much time we have. The medium story!

JS: The medium story is, that her story went viral in the fall of 2014. There was an inspiring, empowering photograph of her that went viral. She is in her firefighting helmet with her hands on her hips and a "SO TRANS SO WHAT" shirt. And I saw that image and I was like - because I'm a visual person - I was blown away.

And I was like holy moly!, that's a trans woman who is coming into the spotlight first and foremost as a hero. She saves lives. She is a firefighter. And unlike so many other trans stories we hear - someone is coming into the spotlight when they turn up murdered. Someone's coming into the headlines because of a tragedy. And so the fact that she was the opposite of a victim in this situation - she was saving victims.

AKT: There is a wonderful moment in your film when she is explaining - what better job can you have? As a firefighter you are saving people. How many people can say that? It's the thing to do! I loved that.

JS: That's so wonderful. It was like, I can a learn a lot from this person as a human being myself, not just a filmmaker. The image of her and the story about her made me think of a future in which we peacefully coexist and work alongside trans people and it's normalised and we get over our hangups. And then I read more and discovered that she was a third generation firefighter.

Jim Baker with Brooklyn's Pride Grand Marshall Brooke Guinan
Jim Baker with Brooklyn's Pride Grand Marshall Brooke Guinan

Her dad [George] was this devoutly Christian, Republican macho guy who's the last person you'd expect in the world to accept a transgender individual. And he was accepting. So I was like, there's more to that. There's actual story there on how he got to accept her and does he really, fully accept her. So the film teases out their relationship. It's the most unique father/daughter story that I had ever seen.

AKT: It is a fascinating part of the film.

JS: You know, the unemployment rate with trans individuals is very high because of the discrimination they encounter in the work place. It hard, you're fighting to de-stigmatise this group of people who are so often disenfranchised. You need to give them opportunities to succeed in life in order to have progress.

AKT: How are you feeling this week? What happened has been so unexpected. I spoke to the directors of Letters From Baghdad about Gertrude Bell, the woman who helped map out the borders of Iraq, almost a century ago. I talked to them the day after the election, and everything felt upside down.

FDNY Lieutenant George Guinan with Brooke:
FDNY Lieutenant George Guinan with Brooke: "It's the most unique father/daughter story that I had ever seen."

JS: This week has been devastating for myself and for Brooke. Brooke and I are close friends, we talked about this and we see it as a step backwards but we're also hopeful that we shall overcome. We shall overcome sexism, transphobia, homophobia, racism and if this has a silver lining and it gets us mobilized and it gets us agitated to really know where we stand on the side of history - this will do that for us. We will be fighting for the humanity and the validity of every human being who deserves equal rights. And a big part of transphobia is sexism.

People don't understand why someone born assigned the gender of male would want to relinquish male privilege to be their true self and be a woman, if they're a trans woman. That's where a lot of the theories why trans women experience so much violence against them [come from]. I think women and trans people, we are kind of in this together, fighting against the same sort of sexist anger that we see from the Trump supporters.

AKT: Have you seen Michael Moore In Trumpland?

JS: I didn't see that yet, but I heard excerpts on Democracy Now.

Woman On Fire poster
Woman On Fire poster

AKT: He is addressing that total fear.

JS: Brooke's story always gave me hope. I like comedy. I'm a documentary filmmaker but I love comedy. My last film, Aspie Seeks Love, was also a comedy. This story has comedic elements to it because it's uplifting in the end.

AKT: And Brooke has a sense of humour, she knows what she is doing.

JS: She knows exactly what she is doing. She has a history studying gender studies. She was completely aware when she entered the fire department and she grew up with her father and grandfather in it. She knew exactly the world that she was entering. Of course, part of entering it as a straight male initially was to maybe try to be what her family want her to be.

A last-ditch effort, I think, is what she said. And she had to be her true self, so within a few years, people were asking: what are you? What's your orientation? And in crude terms. They didn't get her. So she came out as a gay male because that was something that they could maybe wrap their heads around.

And as a gay male that was even so controversial in the FDNY that she experienced bullying and then even further on, when she transitioned into her true self as a woman - there were moments when she was in therapy, where she doubted herself and moments of feeling suicidal.

AKT: What does it mean, a woman? I still don't have a clue. Have you been asking yourself these questions while making the film?

JS: Absolutely. Personally, as I walk around on this planet, I don't think of myself as a woman or a male. It's only when someone brings it to my attention that they are identifying me as a woman, that I'm like, oh, I guess I am technically that thing. Like I feel kind of androgynous inside. And so, I think for Brooke, imagine if you feel like a woman inside and everyone is calling you "he" calling you a man?

That is so alienating, if someone calls you what you're not … I feel just like a grey area person because I'm like bi and androgynous in my soul. So, sort of personally before I met Brooke, I was sort of more for the advocation of like - let's just destroy these categories, let's all just be gender neutral. And then getting to know Brooke was actually more of an education of like - everyone has a nuanced identity and it's just up to the person to decide for themselves who they are.

DOC NYC screenings: Tuesday, November 15 at 7:30pm - Cinepolis Chelsea; Thursday, November 17 at 3:00pm - IFC Center; Expected to attend: Julie Sokolow, Brooke Guinan, George Guinan, and producer Danny Yourd

DOC NYC runs through November 17.

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