Inside Out 2017 Profile: Julie Sokolow

“I love personal storytelling with a comedic flavor, because it has the power to push our guards down and get into our hearts.”

“Woman On Fire”

Woman On Fire is a documentary film that follows Brooke Guinan, New York City’s first openly transgender firefighter, as she navigates the rough waters of social acceptance, personal relationships, and the machismo of the New York Fire Department. It has been praised by The Village Voice, IndieWire, and Salon… just to name a few!

Julie Sokolow — the director of Woman On Fire—is an award-winning film director, musician, and writer. Her short films have been featured by TIME, Vimeo Staff Picks, BuzzFeed, Gawker, Upworthy, and Huffington Post. In 2014, The New York Times profiled Julie and her documentary series Healthy Artists. That same year, her short film Street Doctor went viral and received over one million views. Her feature documentary debut, Aspie Seeks Love (2015), played festivals worldwide and gained acclaim in Vice, Salon, and Huffington Post. You can listen to her music album Something About Violins on iTunes and read about it in Pitchfork. You can find her writing in publications like Salon and Huffington Post.

Director Julie Sokolow — Photo by Jeff Swensen for the New York Times

Woman On Fire had its World Premiere at DOC NYC in 2016 and has gone on to screen at Oxford Film Festival (where it won Best LGBT Film), Chicago Feminist Film Festival, Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, Omaha Film Festival, Atlanta Film Festival, Wicked Queer: Boston’s LGBT Film Festival, Kansas City Film Fest (where it won Best Documentary Feature), Florida Film Festival, Newport Beach Film Festival, Bentonville Film Festival (where it won the Audience Award for Best Documentary), and Worker’s Unite Film Festival. It is scheduled to screen at the upcoming People’s Film Festival and will also have a free screening at this year’s Brooklyn Pride!

You can see the Canadian Premiere of Woman On Fire at this year’s Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film Festival, screening at 12:00pm on May 27th. GET YOUR TICKETS HERE.

“Woman On Fire”

TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOURSELF AND HOW YOU GOT INVOLVED WITH FILMMAKING.

Julie Sokolow: I always loved film but never had the confidence to pursue it. Growing up in the New Jersey suburbs was very stifling, and there weren’t a lot of creative role models to look up to, especially female ones. I was studying psychology at the University of Pittsburgh on a scholarship and I think the fact that I was in a new, exciting city and didn’t have to worry about college debt, freed my mind. I started exploring writing, art, and film and going where my heart took me.

My first documentary feature is called Aspie Seeks Love and it’s about my friend David V. Matthews — a quirky writer, who has struggled his whole life to find love. At age forty-one, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and I follow him on his quest of self-discovery. Woman on Fire is my second feature documentary and I am thrilled to still be on this wild ride of filmmaking.

TELL US A BIT ABOUT WOMAN ON FIRE. WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO TELL THIS STORY?

JS: Woman on Fire tells the story of Brooke Guinan, New York City’s first openly transgender firefighter. I first learned about her story in 2014, when an inspiring poster image of her went viral. In the poster, she’s standing tall with her hands on her hips in a shirt that reads, “So Trans So What”. I was like, “Wow, she is the future!” I couldn’t imagine the uphill battle she must have faced on her way to that powerful stance. I wanted to learn more about her and her courageous spirit.

WHY DO YOU THINK BROOKE’S STORY IS SO RELEVANT TO AUDIENCES IN TODAY’S SOCIAL CLIMATE?

JS: Brooke is a third-generation firefighter and her father George is a respected lieutenant with 35 years on the job. He is also Christian and Republican and very accepting of Brooke. To me, their relationship embodies the polarized political forces in America today. If these two very different people can love and respect each other in the same family and workplace, maybe society at large can become more loving and accepting.

“Woman On Fire”

WAS THERE ANY PART OF THIS FILM THAT ENDED UP ON THE METAPHORICAL CUTTING ROOM FLOOR THAT YOU WISH YOU COULD HAVE FOUND ROOM FOR?

JS: Yes, and many of these deleted scenes will be in the DVD extras. I filmed hours upon hours of footage with Brooke and her boyfriend Jim as they were dating, moving into their house together, and considering marriage. I was tempted at times to make the whole film a romantic comedy/drama because they were so interesting! Also, there were some amazing interview subjects who didn’t make the film but will be introduced in the DVD bonus scenes.

WHAT WAS YOUR BIGGEST PERSONAL HIGHLIGHT FROM WORKING ON THIS PROJECT? YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGE?

JS: A major highlight for me was developing a friendship with Brooke and Jim. I was often times a one-woman crew, living in their guest room for weeks at a time during production. So, I was part-biographer/part-roommate, and there were many funny and awkward stories that arose out of that. The biggest challenge was editing 100 hours of footage into a 90-minute movie! Editing is a painful and profound lesson in letting go.

WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE WOMEN WORKING IN THE FILM INDUSTRY?

JS: I love personal storytelling with a comedic flavor, because it has the power to push our guards down and get into our hearts. I think Issa Rae, creator of Insecure, and Maria Bamford, star of Lady Dynamite, are doing this work phenomenally well. As far as favorite female directors go, I’m a big fan of Ana Lily Amirpour, Tracy Droz Tragos, Melina Matsoukas, and the list goes on forever.

“Woman On Fire”

WHAT’S THE BEST ADVICE ABOUT FILMMAKING YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED?

JS: Probably the best advice is to accept advice. Not all of it, just the stuff that resonates or keeps coming up. We held countless rough cut screening events with trusted friends and creative people to gain feedback on Woman on Fire. I begged friends to be brutal with me and the film and it was through these sessions that I was able to edit the best possible version of the documentary.

AND NOW FOR SOME FUN ONES! IF A MOVIE ABOUT YOUR LIFE WAS CREATED, WHO WOULD STAR AND WHAT GENRE WOULD IT BE?

JS: It would be a psychological thriller/dark comedy starring Heather Matarazzo.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE SONG TO SING AT KARAOKE? WHY?

I sing “At Last” by Etta James when I’m feeling earnest and “Apeman” by The Kinks when I’m feeling rebellious. But it takes a lot to get me to do karaoke.

“Woman On Fire”

WHAT KIND OF HAT BEST DESCRIBES YOUR PERSONALITY?

I wear a red beanie in the winter and it gets more ragged and full of character every year. So, I guess that?

WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW/NEXT?

I’m directing a new documentary feature with the help of two of my favorite producers/long-time collaborators: Danny Yourd, who produced Woman on Fire, and Olivia Vaughn, who produced my last short film, The John Show, which you can watch on Vimeo Staff Picks.

RECOMMEND ONE #MUFFAPPROVED FILM FOR OUR BLOG READERS:

JS: I love the Netflix show The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and I’m glad The MUFF Society approves of it too! The life of an indie filmmaker can be unpredictable and stressful. I need shows and films that are equally entertaining and socially conscious to help put me at ease.

“Woman On Fire” Poster

Visit Julie’s website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Check out Woman On Fire’s official website, Facebook, and Twitter for up-to-date info on the film.

Lisa Gallagher is the Producer of The MUFF Society in Toronto. She is a lover of cats, carbs, and laying down.

Follow her on Instagram and Letterboxd.

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