In addition to the grueling physical and emotional strength it takes to be a firefighter, Brooke Guinan bore the weight of judgment and the weight of hormonal changes to carry out both her desire to be a firefighter and her destiny to transition from male to female. Woman On Fire documents the life and struggles Guinan went through to fulfill both sides of who she was meant to be. The documentary takes a powerful look at the path of transitioning your gender in an overwhelmingly macho profession. We interviewed the director Julie Sokolow to discuss the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of making the film and the message it gets across.
This is such an important and moving topic, can you briefly describe what Women on Fire is about?
Woman on Fire tells the story of Brooke Guinan, the first openly transgender firefighter in NYC. She’s also a third generation firefighter whose father and grandfather served in the FDNY. We follow Brooke as she emerges as a national role model – working against all odds to come out as transgender in an old-school, conservative workplace all while recruiting and training women and LGBTQ people for one of the most traditional jobs in the world.
What was your main motivation for making the documentary?
In 2014, an empowering photograph of Brooke went viral. She’s standing tall with her hands on her hips in a shirt that reads, “So Trans So What”. I thought, wow, she is the future. Her story sparked my imagination of a society in which we work peacefully alongside trans individuals in all sorts of professions. Brooke’s father George is a respected lieutenant with 35 years on the job. He’s also Republican, devoutly Christian, and very accepting of Brooke. To me, their relationship embodied the polarized political forces in America today. I wanted to explore that and celebrate Brooke’s unique life and family.
How long did it take to shoot? Did you run into any challenges while making it?
The film took about a year and a half to shoot. I was simultaneously editing while shooting towards the end. Brooke’s life was so dynamic, I didn’t want to leave anything out of the edit. She was busy working at FDNY headquarters and volunteering with the United Women Firefighters, all while buying a house with her partner Jim and considering marriage. So the film is all of these things – part family history, part love story, part expose.
Can you tell our readers why they should see Woman on Fire and what you want the audience to take away from the film?
You should see Woman on Fire because it is authentic, funny, sweet, and inspiring – just like Brooke. Brooke and I became great friends through the making of this film. I hope our friendship is contagious to audiences and people leave the theater with a sense of kindness for the trans people they encounter in their own lives.
Can you give tips to any prospective Documentary filmmakers?/What did you learn while making Woman on Fire?
One of the coolest parts of making this film was getting really close with Brooke and her family. I would stay at their house for weeks at a time while filming. I know that’s not possible for every documentary, but I really liked the intimacy. It wasn’t just me filming for a couple of hours and then running back home to my own life. Brooke became part of my life and I became part of hers. I think that helped me tell a better story. So I guess the advice is to be immersed and invested in the stories you tell as best you can.
What’s the next step for both you and the doc?
Woman on Fire premieres at DOC NYC on November 15th, followed by an encore screening on November 17th. After that, we’ll play more festivals, tour around, and try to share Brooke’s story as much as we can. The story is a beacon of hope in these tough times so I can’t wait for people to be able to see it and get inspired by Brooke the way she inspired me.