Filmmaker Julie Sokolow talks with Film Pittsburgh’s Candace Opper about endurance, boundaries, and underdog energy.
Julie Sokolow’s most recent feature, Woman on Fire, premiered at DOC NYC in 2016 and since has taken home a slew of awards (including Best LGBT Film at the Oxford Film Festival and the Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature at Reeling – The Chicago Lgbtq+ International Film Festival). Like her earlier projects (Aspie Seeks Love, the Healthy Artists Series), Woman on Fire is a combination of Sokolow’s talent as a storyteller and her drive to make films that give voice to subjects whose experiences speak to larger social issues. Her work is putting Pittsburgh on the map as a city where emerging filmmakers can thrive.
Candace: Where did filmmaking enter the picture for you?
Julie: I thought I was going to be a psychologist first, then a writer, and then a filmmaker, and that just kind of happened to me. I didn’t really anticipate it. Towards the end of undergrad I started to take production classes and once I started to experiment with documentary as a form, I latched right onto it.
C: What drew you to documentary?
J: It was kind of a chance occurrence. I had an inspiring friend who was this artist who had overcome a lot of trauma. I wanted to help him tell his story, so I started filming him while I was in a video production class. At the same time, I was trying to write fiction about him and our friendship, but the filmmaking part was going a lot better than the writing and I realized: I think I’m way better at helping people tell their stories than inventing stories on the page.
C: Sometimes it’s a struggle to figure out the best medium for a story.
J: Filmmaking felt more authentic to me, like a perfect marriage of the social justice/activist impulse and the creative impulse—to give voice to someone struggling to find their voice and, at the same time, tell a story that represented a bigger struggle that other people experience. It became more practical than some of the other more solipsistic art that I had been making and was almost therapeutic because it brought it outside my head and allowed me to focus on helping people tell their stories with these skills I’d developed. It felt like a calling. Documentary filmmaking is the thing I’ve had the most endurance in. I can work on a project every single day for hours and hours and not get—well, I do get burnt out sometimes, but it just feels right. And then to show the film and have people connect and react and cry and say we’re in this together—once I started to have that kind of communal experience of showing a film, I didn’t want to stop.
C: So how did the Healthy Artists series come together?
J: I started filming different movements in the area, like the fight for single payer universal healthcare. A lot of the healthcare activists were senior citizens, but I realized this issue was also affecting a younger crowd—namely this artists’ community that I was part of—whose stories weren’t really being told. So I created a documentary series of short films that were portraits of all different kinds of artists, their talents, how cool they are, and—oh, by the way—they can’t get healthcare. So you watch and think, oh no, this is awful that society doesn’t provide healthcare as a human right. Those portraits that were manageable to make as a new filmmaker ended up growing into this library of 30-50 videos that became a web series, and we started to do community events, and the whole thing ended up going from this local, grassroots project to a nationally recognized project that spoke to what was going on at large.
C: How did you make the transition from making shorts to features?
J: Naivete (laughs). I didn’t really have any template for how to tackle a feature documentary. I think the angst in my personality channeled into the idea of not doing things the way they’re supposed to be done. I can break the rules, I can go run around with my shitty camera and just make a movie. I don’t need a ton of money, I’m just gonna do it. And that’s kind of what I did. There was this guy named David Matthews who I would see around town at record stores and coffee shops. He’d always be wearing this long tweed coat and he just kind of ran everywhere and had this cool look about him. I was intrigued and then one day he contacted me and said, hey, you should make a movie about me.
C: So it just fell into your lap.
J: Exactly. He told me that he’d been recently diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and for the longest time he’d struggled to find love and relationships. For 20 years he’d posted personal ads to telephone poles seeking love, and he asked me if I wanted to make a documentary about his continued quest for love. It was so vulnerable and that’s what you’re looking for as a documentarian: a storyteller. You want someone to be open and vulnerable and not just a glossy facade. I met with him for coffee and he was so funny and witty and I thought, this will be a character-driven story that will make people laugh and cry and feel things and I want to know where it goes, so we started filming. I didn’t know whether it would be a short or a feature, but it just became compulsive for me to keep filming. Over the course of four years, among other projects, I shot 100 hours of footage and got some grants, which allowed me to make it my daily job to make this movie [Aspie Seeks Love].
C: Were you working other jobs at the same time?
J: I made it my mission at a certain point to work as little as possible to do the thing I loved. I just tried to keep my costs really low. I did some freelance writing and video gigs and, along with the grants, was able to keep the projects going.
C: How did you connect with Animal Studio?
J: I had such a deep experience with their film Blood Brother and was like, the people who made this film are in Pittsburgh? This is wild, I need to meet them. I thought it was a long shot, but through persistence and just a connection, Danny Yourd who produced Blood Brother ended up coming on as the executive producer of Aspie Seeks Love and mentored me through the entire process of submitting to film festivals and navigating post production and promotion—all the business stuff. The Animal people are just as ethical and sweet as they are insanely talented at what they do. It’s a really rare combination. It was just a dream come true that they took me in. And then we ended up doing Woman on Fire together.
C: What inspired you to make Woman on Fire?
J: After Aspie Seeks Love there was this kind of freaky, uncertain moment that I think a lot of artists find themselves in continuously: you’re done with a project—now what? I applied to grad school for a film MFA and got into Columbia, but immediately you get the letter that’s like, do you want to spend eighty-eight thousand dollars? Anyway, one of the application essays I wrote had asked what hypothetical documentary I would make if I were in New York. And that’s how I found the story of Brooke Guinan, the first openly transgender firefighter, and immediately had this heart-stop moment. I saw that image that went viral of her standing tall with her hands on her hips, the So-Trans-So-What shirt and her firefighting gear and long flowing hair and she looked fun and brave and cool and quirky. She looked like someone I wanted to hang out with. Her story just inspired me. I was like, this story is America. So as I was writing this hypothetical proposal, I said, F grad school, I’m just gonna go make this movie.
C: I think that should be the title of this interview.
J: (laughs) It was just one of those moments. That’s been the energy throughout my process. A little bit of rebellion through everything. With Aspie Seeks Love it was, I don’t need a ton of money and fancy gear to tell a story. With Woman on Fire it was, I don’t need all this training, I’m just gonna make a great movie.
C: And that’s a hugely inspiring part of your narrative as an artist. Maybe the mistake a lot of people make is thinking that you do need all those things. People don’t necessarily realize that the artistic journey can be this series of small actions, or spontaneous decisions.
J: Yeah, I think that’s part of what I like about the subjects I pick—they have a little of that underdog energy. I identify with that a lot, like Brooke saying I’m trans, I’m gonna be a fire fighter anyway, deal with it.
C: So how did you and Brooke connect?
J: I reached out to her and she was so warm and friendly and interesting. We realized we were the same age, we had a lot in common, and she invited me to come and film her and her father. So, I went on a trip and filmed interviews with both of them and thought, yeah there’s a huge story here.
C: You stayed with Brooke, right? What was it like to be that enveloped in someone’s life?
J: I don’t know how I managed to do that. It felt kind of like a fun sleepover party. They had a guest room, so that worked out nicely, but at first they were getting ready to move into their first house, and they were living in this condo with all these boxes and animals—3 cats and a dog—and it was a tight space already. Then I came and crashed on their couch for a week. At one point the cat peed on me while I was sleeping.
C: Like a hazing.
J: Yeah, like a rite of passage. Again—there’s something about that scrappy filmmaker thing that I like, just a little bit masochistic in a way. I just want to lug all this gear nine hours from Pittsburgh to New York and then get peed on by a cat.
C: It probably makes you feel like you’re really earning it.
J: Exactly. That’s what that film felt like sometimes. But I liked becoming a weird member of their family, like a weird cousin.
C: Did you ever feel like you were approaching that artistic threshold where you get too close? How did you maintain an artistic distance?
J: Yeah, I think as a documentary filmmaker—if you’re honest with yourself—you’re gonna run across that challenge. Who is my duty towards? Is my duty towards the people I’m portraying in the film, to be as flattering to them as possible? Or is my duty to the audience, and to be as honest a storyteller as possible? I end up somewhere in the middle. Your subjects are giving you their time and their vulnerability and their stories and you do have a responsibility to be as fair and empathetic to them as possible, while telling the truth.
C: How do you navigate those boundaries with your subjects?
J: Some of that is a conversation and an agreement you come to with a subject where they may say, this is where we close the door and you don’t see this part of our lives. I think that’s healthy. When Brooke was going through her surgery there were definitely moments where we had tough conversations about what would be included in the film. At first, she didn’t want her surgery depicted in the film at all but we were doing this day-in-the-life of Brooke and it was constantly coming up in conversations. It was a huge part of her mental landscape. And it’s part of the trans experience, so it became a discussion of how we could depict it in a tasteful way. Ninety-nine percent of the time we were on the same page. She was really easy to work with and a powerful force. I mean, we went to all these film festivals together and traveled a ton. It’s not just the life of a film where you’re bonding with these people, you’re spending a year plus screening the film together.
C: Even apart from your artist relationship, it’s great to be able to connect with people on that level.
J: That’s the thing—I follow my own curiosity and I try to keep it that way so it comes from a genuine impulse. I didn’t know anything about fire fighter culture and at some points I thought, maybe I’m not the right person to tell this story, or maybe I am the right person because I can be a vessel for the perspective of coming to something fresh, and also uniquely from being a female filmmaker in this generally macho world. It’s probably the most sensitive firefighter movie that exists.
C: So you just bought a house in Pittsburgh, which means you’re going to stick around for a while. How do you feel Pittsburgh is as a community for filmmakers?
J: In the last year some friends and I started this filmmaker collective and we have potlucks every month and that’s been a great experience. There are so many talented filmmakers and composers and cinematographers and thespians—there’s just no lack of talent in this city. Because of Pittsburgh’s manageable size, I find that people are not as stressed out or dog-eat-dog about their art as people are on the coasts. Or as self-promotional. I like the down to earth vibe of this city. It’s a great place to make work, that’s why I’m sticking around—to not get caught up in some rat race.
C: And it’s still fairly affordable, like a place where artists can cobble together jobs and make it work.
J: I know everyone’s experience is a little different with this city. I know some people feel a bit limited at times.
C: Limited in terms of opportunities available?
J: Yeah, and I see that sometimes, but my method is just so strange. I can’t speak on behalf of filmmakers in general in Pittsburgh, but I think if you play your cards right you can set yourself up somewhat comfortably. You can maneuver yourself into a comfortable existence for yourself as an artist if you’re somewhat strategic. At least, in a way you can’t elsewhere. Plus I like the interdisciplinary artistic community. There’s a support system her for all of us, so we all collaborate. We lift each other up as opposed to compete with each other. My main point of reference is the energy in New York. People are so stressed about paying their rent that it puts pressure on their ability to make art and have the space to think. Here I have the space to think, and I want to think about money as little as possible.
C: So what’s next? What are you working on? Is it super secret?
J: A little bit. I’m doing another feature documentary with Animal. It’s personal portrait that deals with climate change. We did a short recently, too, called The John Show. That was probably the short film that I spent the most time on ever before and put the same rigor in that I’d put into a feature. Basically artist Brett Yasko commissioned 250 artists to each make a portrait of his friend John Riegert who was very involved in the art scene but who’d had a series of misfortunes and was dealing with mental illness and had become a little bit more reclusive. Over a year the artists had to interact with John and became friends with him and it was kind of a beautiful experience. It’s always fun to tell a local Pittsburgh story but try to bake in enough universality that it gets seen nationally.
C: A lot of your work is streaming now, but what do you think of the movie-going community in Pittsburgh? I mean, as a filmmaker you obviously want people to come out and see your work but streaming makes it harder to motivate people to go to the movies.
J: I’ve had a few instances recently where I went to the movies and it was just me and my boyfriend and three other people on a Friday night and that felt heartbreaking. Part of the joy of going to the theater is the communal experience, actually hearing other people subtly react to the film. That’s what I love about film festivals—especially when you get to interact with the filmmakers. I like the immersiveness of being in the theater and giving yourself entirely to that moment rather than watching something on your tiny laptop screen and checking your phone every few minutes. People put their heart and souls into making film and to adequately experience that I think you need to give your full attention to it.
C: I worry that movie-going is becoming the new vinyl. Not exclusive, but this kind of niche experience.
J: I guess part of my fear is the general devaluation of artists and art over time. It’s the same thing with music. People not fully recognizing the labor of creative people and just treating it like it’s a dime a dozen and not contributing back to the artist. I think it will show in the quality of work being made, if we don’t support the artists who make the work. I mean, I enjoy watching movies on my laptop, too, I’m not going to say I don’t. But I hope that the cinematic experience doesn’t die out so much that it’s hard to access in the future.
Julie Sokolow is an award-winning filmmaker based in Pittsburgh, PA. She directed Woman on Fire, which aired on Starz in 2017 and was praised by IndieWire and the Village Voice. The film celebrates Brooke Guinan, the first openly transgender firefighter in NY. Her first film, Aspie Seeks Love, won Best Documentary at the 2015 Cinequest Film Festival. Sokolow’s feature and short films have been acclaimed by The New York Times, Vimeo Staff Picks and Vice, among others.