Woman on Fire

God bless all first responders.

(2016) Documentary (Animal) Brooke Guinan, George Guinan V, Susan Guinan, Jim Baker, Bill Deblasio, George Guinan IV, Sarinya Srisakul, Charlotte Guinan, Joe Baker, Maureen Baker, Charles Radcliffe, Darren Melcchiore. Directed by Julie Sokolow

It is a different world we live in today than those my age lived in when I was growing up. Things are less settled, less certain. You can’t even count on biology to necessarily get things right.

Brooke Guinan is a firefighter for the Fire Department of New York City. She is a rarity in that she is a woman in that very male profession; in New York City there are just 44 women out of roughly 10,000 total firefighters, that’s just 0.4% for those keeping track. But she is also unique; she is openly transgender transitioning from male to female. She is the first and only (to date) transgender working as a firefighter in New York.

She was born George Guinan VI to conservative parents and at a young age presented to Susan Guinan (his mother) a letter explaining calmly that he was pretty sure he was gay. He was 11 years old at the time. Susan and George V (his dad) were devastated but over time, they accepted their son for who he was. When 9/11 occurred, Georgie was inspired to follow in his father’s footsteps. He got a lot of ribbing from the fairly traditional culture of the men of the FDNY but Georgie was pretty sure that he could take it. There was just one problem.

Georgie had it wrong. He wasn’t gay. He was a woman living in a man’s body. Making the decision to transition wasn’t an easy one and when he informed his parents that he would be known as Brooke from now on, her parents once again were devastated. As Susan put it, “First I had to bury Georgie before I could accept Brooke.” Her dad wasn’t sure what to think.

And it wasn’t any easier at work. The ribbing got to be something else from the men. Even the women of the department weren’t accepting Brooke; it took six months for them to agree to allow Brooke to join their support group, mainly at the urging of the group’s president Sarinya Srisakul who had emigrated from Southeast Asia as a young woman and accepted Brooke not just as a woman but also as a friend.

As Brooke became more visible in the department, she was dubbed “New York’s Bravest” and she did a lot of publicity for the department, becoming the face of acceptance for the department and indeed the city. She became grand marshal at gay pride parades and appeared on talk shows and lectures.

Her boyfriend Jim, an Air Force veteran, accepts Brooke but he’s not sure how to break the news to his parents that he’s dating a transgender woman. Jim also seems to be hesitating to marry Brooke; he’s a bit commitment-phobic. When the two decide to buy a house together and invite Jim’s parents, it’s time for things to come out into the open.

Sokolow, who also directed the 2015 Florida Film Festival favorite Aspie Seeks Love, is a director who likes to focus on people who are part of groups that are marginalized by society. To me, that’s an admirable way to choose documentary subjects and Sokolow, a former indie rocker, shows a little more confidence on this her second feature. While she isn’t as innovative with telling her story as she was in Aspie Seeks Love (which was organized by holidays), there is definite improvement when it comes to telling the story.

It helps that Sokolow has a subject who is charismatic, eloquent and important. At a time when the Christian right seems intent on showing just how intolerant they can be to the transgender community, trying to limit which bathrooms they can use because they’re concerned that transgender men will rape straight women (cases of that actually happening: zero) whereas transgender men have been beaten up in men’s bathrooms which often lead them to hold it until they get home. Yes, Virginia, the transgender community should be allowed to use public bathrooms too – and the ones that belong to the sex they identify with. Brooke puts a human face on transgender women, much as the justifiably lauded Amazon series Transparent does. The only difference is that this isn’t fictional.

The quibble I have here is that we rarely see Brooke doing her job; mostly she is seen hanging out at the fire station and doing promotional appearances. We concentrate more on her personal life and her relationship with her family and I agree that this is an important aspect of her life. However, if you’re going to use her standing with the FDNY you should at least give a sense of her as a firefighter. This is clearly a large part of her identity and I don’t think Sokolow was successful in portraying this aspect of her. It does Brooke a disservice because viewers may get the impression that she’s more of a publicity stunt than a real firefighter. That is certainly not the case.

Still, this is a fascinating story and we get to see Brooke’s relationship with her dad, which is simply inspiring. It is good to see how far the two have traveled. I don’t doubt that her dad is Brooke’s hero and he’ll be your hero too. When Jim’s parents do arrive at their son’s new house, they treat Brooke with such affection that it makes one think that perhaps most people are more accepting of transgenders than we think.

This isn’t a big leap forward for Sokolow as a filmmaker but it is definitely a forward motion for her. There is some improvement and that’s always encouraging; the subject matter is certainly worthy of a documentary. I’m not sure if Brooke Guinan is New York’s Bravest but a case can definitely be made for that. You won’t forget her once you’ve seen this film and if that doesn’t spell success for a documentary, I don’t know what does.

REASONS TO GO: The movie gives a human face to the transgender community.
REASONS TO STAY: We never really see Brooke at work as a firefighter.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Guinan is a third-generation firefighter; her father was at the World Trade Center on 9/11 and her grandfather retired a captain.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before You Know It
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Somewhere Beautiful

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