Documentary 'Woman on Fire' Chronicles Transgender New York City Firefighter's Story

The inspiration for University of Pittsburgh alumna Julie Sokolow’s latest film, “Woman on Fire,” began with an LGBTQ poster campaign.

In 2014, Sokolow (A&S '09) saw an image of Brooke Guinan produced by the Vocal Organization for International Courage and Equality. Guinan was standing tall with her hands on her hips, wearing her firefighting helmet and a shirt that read “So Trans So What.”

Intrigued, she read a few stories about Guinan — the first openly transgender woman in the New York City Fire Department and one of only about 50 women on a force of more than 10,000. Sokolow then reached out to Guinan about filming a documentary.

Two years later, the completed film premiered in New York City. It tells the story of Guinan, a third-generation firefighter, and her gender transition while working in the “macho culture” of the firefighting profession.

“Brooke’s story demonstrates the importance of being true to yourself, even if you’re working against pressures from society, family and colleagues to conform to a narrow way of being,” Sokolow said.

The film also takes a critical look at the department, which is new territory for Sokolow.

“I tend to film artists, writers and creatives. But I thought Brooke Guinan’s story was so visionary,” Sokolow said. “To come out as a transwoman in the hypermasculine NYC fire department seemed exceptionally brave. I wanted to learn about courage by documenting Brooke’s story.”

Another thread of Guinan’s story is her relationship to Jim Baker, her boyfriend of two years, as he struggled to explain his relationship with Guinan to his family. At the time, Guinan was buying a house with Baker and they were considering marriage. Baker hadn’t yet told his mother that Guinan was trans.

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At festivals and screenings in the U.S. and internationally

Their relationship added a romantic thread to a film otherwise focused on identity, work and family, Sokolow said.

“Julie is super talented. I can’t imagine what it’s like being a documentary filmmaker and achieving this fly-on-the-wall sort of status. Maybe that’s part of it — Julie is very disarming,” Guinan said at a Q&A with Sokolow and Baker following the film’s Pittsburgh premiere at the Carnegie Museum of Art this August, which was sponsored by the University Honors College and Pitt's Office of Diversity and Inclusion

“We’re of similar age and have a lot of similar ideology about different things,” Guinan continued. “But Julie, she always found a way to make me feel like the camera wasn’t there and that we were sort of girlfriends hanging out doing our thing.”

To help get the film to the big screen, Pittsburgh-based producer Danny Yourd and his production company, Animal, loaned Sokolow camera equipment so she could produce a short promo video. 

Afterward, she said, the company fully supported her film for two years so that she could focus on directing and editing.

“They’ve empowered me to be able to live as a full-time artist,” Sokolow said. Yourd also mentored her on her last film, “Aspie Seeks Love.”

In addition to work and romance, "Woman on Fire" also explores Guinan’s relationship with her father, George, a fire department lieutenant and 35-year veteran of the force.

“He’s Christian and conservative. But you can’t stereotype him or really anyone else in life,” Sokolow said. "This past June 2017, he marched with Brooke at the Manhattan Pride Parade to celebrate Brooke’s role as a grand marshal."

“It’s phenomenal when the love of family outweighs the barriers of politics and religion,” Sokolow added.

Sokolow, who studied psychology, creative writing and film studies at Pitt, said she hopes people recognize the story’s universality.

Sokolow and Guinan in front of a red carpet backdrop“We’ve all had moments when it’s difficult to be true to ourselves at work, at home or in our relationships,” Sokolow said. “If people can relate to Brooke’s story, then hopefully they’ll leave the theater with a new sense of respect for transgender people. I also hope that women and LGBTQ people in particular can draw inspiration from Brooke’s bravery in pursuing her own dreams.”

During her time at Pitt, Sokolow said she “felt constantly inspired and encouraged.” She received a Chancellor's Scholarship from the University Honors College and achieved a bachelor of philosophy (BPhil) degree from the Honors College for a screenwriting project.

Susan Smith's literature classes opened my eyes to great writers and artists. Mark Lynn Anderson's film studies classes taught me how to deconstruct films scene by scene. And (former Pitt lecturer) Jeff Martin's writing classes taught me the fundamentals of storytelling,” Sokolow said. “My professors were passionate, challenging and generous with their time and mentorship. I felt a great sense of community at Pitt, especially through the Honors College, which nurtured me through the Brackenridge Fellowship program and my BPhil degree.”

Brian Primack, dean of the Honors College, said the school is honored to be connected to Sokolow.

“She exemplified each of the UHC’s values in terms of having demonstrated remarkable academic achievement, intellectual curiosity and social consciousness,” Primack said.