Light It Up

Feminist Revolution Fuels Lizzie Borden's Born In Flames

Lizzie Borden directs <i>Born in Flames</i> (1983).
Lizzie Borden directs Born in Flames (1983).

The incendiary Born in Flames is Lizzie Borden's signature film. Borden is best known for her critically and popularly acclaimed 1986 film about prostitution, Working Girls; best forgotten is her 1991 production disaster Love Crimes, starring Sean Young and Patrick Bergin, which was taken from her control and has become a legendary flop and something of an albatross. 1983's Born in Flames shows Borden in full glory, a feminist filmmaker bursting with ideas and vision.

The setting is the future, New York City 10 years after the Social Democratic War of Liberation. Technically, that makes Born in Flames science fiction. But the future depicted here is not one of laser guns and spacesuits. Borden's American future looks remarkably like our present. Rape, day care, and discrimination are still unresolved issues in this new society. With sexual oppression the norm, women in this post-revolutionary world are still faced with the strategic decision of how to effect a social structure that is responsive to their needs and goals. The more things change, the more things stay the same.

Born in Flames is a complex interweaving of characters, music, images, voices, editing, conflicts, and humor. It combines techniques of deconstructionist cinema and conventional narrative filmmaking and throws them together at a brisk pace that propels it all.

Four groups of women activists, each reflecting different ideological/tactical positions within the women's movement, are featured: The Women's Army, led by black lesbian Adelaide Norris (Jeanne Satterfield), is a racially mixed group that organizes feminist protests and labor demonstrations and engages in vigilante actions against men caught harassing and raping women. Phoenix Radio is a black women's underground station with roots in soul, reggae, and gospel, operated by Honey, whose velvety voice encourages intuitive resistance. Radio Regazza is a white women's underground station rooted in punk rock that features the musical rapping of Isabel (Adele Bertai), whose poetic prodding encourages active resistance against generalized enemies ("ram the darkness with your rhyme"). The Socialist Youth Review editors are a group of women "intellectuals" who work within the Party to analyze and establish correct policy on "women's issues." In addition, the presence of the government and mainstream media is made palpable in the form of regular speeches by the president and mayor, FBI briefing sessions, Party meetings, and constant news and talk show broadcasts.

After Women's Army leader Adelaide Norris is laid off her construction job, she grows increasingly militant. Faced with growing pressure by spying federal agents and frustrated in grassroots efforts, she decides to adopt terrorist strategies, but is thwarted by her imprisonment for illegal gunrunning. She is murdered in prison, and her death provides the women's movement with a genuine martyr as well as a unified enemy in the form of government and media deception and doublespeak. The various women's groups catalyze new alliances with each other, re-evaluate their former methods, and abandon strategies that purport to effect change from within. Violence becomes a plausible tactic in a world characterized by zero options.

But to see the film (and consequently dismiss it) as a simple polemic advocating violence is to miss the richness of ideas, situations, characters, and options it really portrays. As filmmaker Lizzie Borden says, "The film is really about a war of words. The film is about how the languages of groups are so different and that no group should be allowed to lose the right to define itself through language. ... Basically, what I was trying to do was make a film that was narrative but not narrative in any way that an audience could find escapist. I wanted the focus of the film on the media and the language."

The Chronicle had the opportunity to talk with Borden by phone from her home in Los Angeles in advance of her visit to Austin to introduce Born in Flames next Tuesday, June 26, 7pm at the Alamo Drafthouse, as part of the Austin Film Society's film series "Dance, Girl, Dance: Women Directors of the 70s and 80s."

Austin Chronicle: I'm always amazed by what Born in Flames accomplishes in terms of its futuristic setting. This 1983 film works today. You get such a strong sense of it being set some time in the near future, but it's a future that looks a whole hell of a lot like things are now -- yet it's after the revolution.

Lizzie Borden: It's strange for me because that film is so low-rent and had no thought-out production design. The funny thing about when I look at it now is that it's supposedly set 10 years in the future, and the one thing it turns out I got right were the gas prices.

It's interesting that the aesthetic of cheapness has come back now with the idea of video. But what I was trying to do in Born in Flames was so different in terms of story structure and political film. Obviously, certain movies that I saw, like The Battle of Algiers and other political movies, were what inspired it. But even the method -- the method was pure madness. If I had known it would take five years to make, I never would have made it. I had no idea. It was a process more than it was about an end product.

AC: What do you mean by that?

LB: It's the idea of making a film that will come together through a process that elicits ideas and performances from sometimes-real people and sometimes-not-real people in a fictional universe. I kept editing -- and almost like rewriting -- as we went along because so often we would shoot a scene and it would be terrible, but there'd be a seed in that scene and we would go out and reshoot it. The only problem was that some of the actors/actresses would gain 30 pounds, lose 30 pounds, they'd shave their heads, then cut their hair and stuff.

AC: Five years is a long time to stay in character.

LB: Yes. And the ones who were passionate about it hung in and the ones who weren't dropped out. They moved or they lost interest or some of them didn't really understand how important it was to show up at a certain time. Admittedly, I was paying people something like $25 to show up somewhere.

I think if I had gone to film school I never would have made it because I would have learned (as I've sort of learned in the last 10 years) that you have to understand screenplay structure, you have to understand how to fix things. I was doing all that on the editing machine.

AC: So you didn't have a script?

LB: No script. At all. None. Just an idea, a concept. And some kind of notion of where the concept could go. But not absolutely. Just that it would escalate to a point. It was about gathering forces and about women expressing different ideas in different ways of speaking, and it was really inspired by a concept and a problem, rather than the idea of telling a story. I saw in New York that black women and white women lived separate lives, and that white feminists were trying to kind of impose an ideology on black women, who didn't like the word "feminist" and often weren't intellectual that way. I just thought, 'I've got to create a universe in which these various groups come together.' I remember, too, I was really influenced by some of the stuff I was reading in the news about pirate radio stations in Italy at the time. And how could you create a dialogue in which women could come together and yet not have to absorb and use the other's language, and where there could be a multiplicity of voices? And so actually I had to find people with those genuine multiplicity of voices because I couldn't write that. It was almost like having these sessions but they were improvised and from the improvisations would come a scripted scene that we would do later. It's a miracle that it ever got done.

This was very Godardian because that's what made me want to make films anyway. And the idea of putting issues out there. You don't really know anything personally about these women. They're all about what they're doing and what they say. And it was musical in the sense that their language patterns and their kind of pre-rap rapping was meant to represent a social point of view, and often it was hard to deal with what they were meant to represent in their own true personalities.

It was such a ragtag thing, but it was possible then to do that in New York because there were places you could get short ends [of film stock] and you could rent equipment for very little. I suppose you could do it even cheaper now on video. I edited it on a Steenbeck that I rented out to NYU students. I had it in my house. I had a loft (which was the loft that I shot Working Girls in later), but I would rent it out to NYU students and that would pay for it. Then I would work at the weird hours that they weren't there. But when I saw what the NYU students were doing: marital arguments, Jesus coming down from the cross, there seemed to be favorite subjects, and a lot of "boy" subjects, and I just thought, "God, what am I doing?" But I'm glad I didn't really question it too much.

I don't know that I could make a film like Born in Flames again because that so grew out of a time and a place. I don't see the point of doing a cheap DV movie that I could potentially finance myself. Cheapness by itself ... what is that? I sometimes feel frustrated by the inability to make the movies that I want to make. Some of them are hard because they're period pieces. Things that I am drawn to also tend to have a political bent to them.

AC: What are you doing next?

LB: The film that I've wanted to do since Working Girls may or may not happen in a couple of months, and I'm just hoping that it will. It's called Rialto and it's set against McCarthyism in 1953. Susan Sarandon is attached. It's a love story about a woman who learns to trust again and a kid who learns courage, learns about bravery from her. If that's the film I get to do next, I can forget all the junk in the middle that I didn't really want to do or which got messed up in some way because I wasn't really invested with the same criteria I had in Born in Flames and Working Girls.

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Born in Flames, Lizzie Borden, Working Girls, Love Crimes, feminist, feminism, feminist film, Austin Film Society, Dance, Girl, Dance: Women Directors of the 70s and 80s, Rialto, Susan Sarandon

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