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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Aspie Seeks Love


Dave Matthews - not the guy with the band.

Dave Matthews – not the guy with the band.

(2015) Documentary (Animal) David Matthews, Diana Dugina, Zo Weslowski, Wayne Wise, Aaron Schall, Ryan Dugina, Elizabeth Kaske, Dina Matthews, Heather Conroy, Chuck Kinder, Diane Cecily, Nikki Trader, Erika Mikkalo, Phil Gorrow, David Cherry, Rebecca Klaw. Directed by Julie Sokolow

Florida Film Festival 2015

One thing that nearly all of us have in common regardless of race, creed, nationality, religion, gender or any other defining statistic is the need to be loved. We all want it; to be in the company of someone whose emotional connection to us is as deep as ours to them. To live out our lives with the one person we feel safest with, who accepts us as we are and who makes our hearts beat just that much faster when they walk in the room.

Those with Asperger’s Syndrome are no different. Asperger’s is a mental disorder in the autism spectrum, although it is high-functioning; often you won’t know from talking to them that they have any disorders at all. Asperger’s affects the ability to read nonverbal communication and makes social interaction much more different and frustrating. So much of courtship has to do with non-verbal cues; an Asperger’s sufferer won’t be able to pick up on any of them.

David V. Matthews lives in Pittsburgh and has his own style which some may write off as quirky. He’s a gifted writer, an artist and a bit of a bon vivant in the sense that he can captivate a room with his personality. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s at the tender age of 41, which came as a bit of a relief – his mental tics and eccentricities now had an explanation beyond “that’s just something David does.” There was a reason for the way he behaved and the difficulties he had relating to others.

At the same time, it also meant – to his mind – that there was something broken with him, which can be a scary thing. Suffering from clinical depression myself, I know that feeling, alone in the dark when once you’ve discovered that you have this issue, you wonder “What else is broken in me too?” Asperger’s is not something you can take a pill and are then able to deal with social situations normally any more than someone with depression can take a pill and be happy.

David has tried a lot of different things to find love, including going to mixers that his support group throws, leaving quirky fliers around Pittsburgh essentially advertising himself as a romantic possibility for lonely ladies, to online dating through the service OKCupid. He is a handsome enough man although now pushing 50, most of the women available are single moms, divorcees or women who have either not had the time for a personal life or the inclination for one.

Sokolow divides the movie by holidays which is an interesting way of organizing the footage, but effective. She doesn’t pull punches here; watching David sometimes flounder in social situations makes you want to yell out advice to the screen. Then it hits you.

None of us are born with a manual that tells us how to attract the opposite sex. Mostly what we go through is a system of trial and error, emphasis on the latter. All of us, myself included, can recall painful episodes of wasted opportunities, catastrophic mistakes and missed chances when it comes to romance. We all have had painful experiences that have (hopefully) taught us for the next time around. We can all relate to what David is going through, but whereas those without Asperger’s can learn from their experiences, so too can David and others with Asperger’s but only in a limited sense; if they miss non-verbal cues the first time around, they’ll miss the same cues the second.

David, like many Asperger’s patients, has an atypical speech pattern; in David’s case, it is clipped and hyper-precise. This sometimes makes him sound condescending when I don’t think that’s really what his intention is at all. He also has a sense of humor that runs to the surreal and absurd; not everyone will connect with David as a person for these reasons. Some will find him to be overbearing but some will also find him to be the coolest person in the room and judging from what I saw over admittedly just over an hour of footage I would tend to characterize him as the latter. Of course, that’s all instinct on my end; your results may vary.

We can all see ourselves a little in David for the most part. Trying hard, sometimes too hard to connect with others only to be faced with disappointment and rejection time and time again, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and launch ourselves back into the fray. Not all of us find the right one, at least not right away, but we keep on trying. You admire that about David; he knows that he is playing the game of love at a disadvantage but he perseveres. To use a sports metaphor, he’s the Muggsy Bogues (a 5’3″ point guard for the Charlotte Hornets who was the shortest player in NBA history) of romance.

The movie has a sweet ending that will put a grin on your face when you leave the theater which is priceless; it will also teach you something about Asperger’s and the everyday lives of those who live with it or have loved ones who do. Although the movie feels slow-paced at times, the short running time makes that a bit more tolerable than it might ordinarily. Still with all that, Aspie Seeks Love will get a favorable reaction from you solely depending on how you react to Matthews, and how you react to him says a lot more about you than it does about him.

Incidentally, you can connect further to Matthews at his blogsite where you can read excerpts from his forthcoming novel. You’ll be glad you did.

REASONS TO GO: Sweet ending. A real warts-and-all look at a real world issue. Educational about Asperger’s Syndrome for those unfamiliar with it.
REASONS TO STAY: Matthews’ personality may take some getting used to by some. Laid-back feel and pacing may not appeal to everybody.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sokolow began as an indie rock performer with a critically acclaimed album Something About Violins to her credit; this is her first feature-length film after directing several shorts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: David and Lisa
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Keeping Room