In my finale communiqué from the Cinema Rediscovered festival in Bristol I take a look at Lizzie Borden’s 1983 film Born in Flames. This was a major discovery for me, Lizzie Borden being a director I was not that familiar with having only seen her film Working Girls some 25 years ago whilst a student.
Director Lizzie Borden came to film from a background of fine art and left-wing activism, her early films are formally experimental agitprop. She is interested in using elements of genre whilst not committing fully to the codified narrative formats taught in film schools. Born in Flames (1982) was made over five years as Borden raised financing and shot when she had money available. Her cast is largely made up of non-professional actors, activists, and friends and colleagues from art groups.
Although clearly the work of a left-wing voice, Born in Flames presents a very cynical view of an apparent socialist utopia that masks a dystopian reality for women, taking place in a near future United States 10 years after a successful and bloodless socialist revolution.
Despite the rise of a socialist state women are still being marginalised in society. Men who have families being prioritised for the best state issued jobs (if that sounds familiar, it is in line with arguments being aired in the wake of the BBC gender pay gap scandal). In the face of protest, the socialist government proposes a scheme to pay women to be stay-at-home mothers, further marginalising gay and unmarried women. At the same time, levels of street crime are rising, and women are subject to assault and harassment on the street.
One feminist group patrols the streets on bicycles, swarming around rapists and muggers. Perhaps stung by how the actions of these women demonstrate the state’s failure to protect its female citizens, these actions are characterised as vigilantism and demonised in the mainstream media. Radical feminist groups agitating for greater rights are seen as a threat and under party surveillance.
Shooting guerrilla style on the streets of New York, Born in Flames is presented in an observational verité style. While the film has a definite narrative story, and is told in a linear fashion, it does not have one central character or point of view, focussing instead on a large cast of female characters all part of a spectrum of feminist groups that reflect different political, social, ethnic and sexual orientations.
The different voices within the women’s movement are ingeniously represented with a collage of voices, music, and viewpoints. The radical edge is represented by two pirate radio stations. Radio Ragazza is run by Isabel (Adele Bertei) a young white lesbian and plays a mix of slam poetry and punk rock music. Phoenix Radio is African American, playing more roots, soul and reggae music, and is led by Honey (the actress is credited under this name also). A more mainstream feminist media is a state sponsored newspaper edited by three white female editors (one of whom is played by Kathryn Bigelow. The various groups refuse to work together, divided by class and politics. This changes when a radical activist dies in police custody. This motivates the groups to take more visible direct action and to begin to work together.
Clearly, this is a work of propaganda by Borden, but while it is politically radical it is by no means an unapproachable. The multi viewpoint and documentary style is reminiscent of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966). Born in Flames also has a great soundtrack including angular Gang of Four style punk from The Bloods, the shrieking title track by The Red Crayola, alongside Hendrix and Lou Reed songs. As much as the film gives voice to radical political discourses it makes sure it is always interesting to look at and to listen to.
Despite the science fiction premise, the film is very much about the experience of women on the streets of New York in the late seventies and early eighties. This is not the New York of Woody Allen. It’s a working class, street level view of the city as it is experienced by women. In many ways it looks as much like a historical artefact as New York exploitation films like The Exterminator (1980), and Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer (1979).
The economically ravaged New York of the late seventies and early eighties no longer exists. While it would be perverse to mourn the passing of skyrocketing crime rates and urban blight, that New York was also an extremely fertile time for art, birthing NY punk and no-wave, hip-hop, fine art, and underground film. This vibrancy can be seen in the cast of Born in Flames, the film is full of artists and activists of whom the most well known now are musician Adele Bertei, future Oscar winning director Kathryn Bigelow. The film also features the first screen appearance of playwright and actor Eric Bogosian in a small role.
It is depressing how little has actually changed since the film’s initial release. New York may now be gentrified and significantly safer, but in just six months the Trump administration has been rolling back rights for women and the LGBT community. However, Borden’s film still has great relevance, and is ultimately positive in its depiction of how marginalised groups can collectively mobilise and make their voices heard. The use and control of media is a key theme of the film, even if it leads to an uncomfortable moment as activists blow up a communications tower on the top of the World Trade Centre.
Borden’s subsequent career failed to live up to the promise of her early films. Moving on to larger budgets brought studio interference and she disowned erotic thriller Love Crimes (1992) before moving into television with mixed results before her directing career sputtered out. Born in Flames has languished in obscurity before being restored by New York’s Anthology Film Archives and again being shown and rediscovered at film festivals.
Obviously this is a must watch for anyone interested in feminism, and feminist film, but even if this film sounds overly didactic to you it is of interest. This is very much recommended if you are a fan of New York’s no-wave scene and cult sci-fi films like Liquid Sky (1982).
For more info, there is a great interview with Borden to be found on the website of online radio station RWM (@Radio_Web_MACBA).