Released in 1983 during Reagan’s presidency and Ed Koch’s tenure as mayor of New York City, Lizzie Borden’s futurist, science-fiction feature Born in Flames (1983) imagines political activism ten years after a “social-democratic war of liberation.” The film was shot using somewhat guerrilla documentary techniques, includes found footage from international news and is set to music by Red Krayola and the lesbian rock group The Bloods. Unconcerned with technological advancement or alien worlds, Born in Flames uses the conceit of a “future” to expand the political imagination, considering both the limitations of progressive rhetoric and the possibilities of ongoing activism. Featuring performances by Adele Bertei, Florynce Kennedy, and Kathryn Bigelow, Born in Flames was described by Riot Grrrl Kathleen Hanna as a “blueprint for feminist change.”
Despite the alleged revolution, Born in Flames’ New York remains plagued by racism and gender inequity and is tightly controlled by a government that labels any dissent as counterrevolutionary. The film focuses on the intersecting stories of four women’s organizations: pirate radio stations Radio Ragazza, Phoenix Radio, the armed coalition the Women’s Army, and the establishmentarian editors of the Socialist Youth Review.
Born in Flames was Borden’s second feature, completed after Regrouping (1976), an experimental documentary about feminism, and before Working Girls (1986), a frank depiction of a day in the life of a sex worker that won Special Jury Recognition at Sundance. Recently restored by Anthology Film Archives, a 35mm print of Born in Flames screens at the Walker on April 30 as part of Downtown New York: 1970s and 1980s Art and Film. In her interview with Crosscuts Lizzie Borden discusses independent cinema, feminism and political filmmaking.
After attending college at Wellesley you moved to New York during a period of intense artistic creativity. What attracted you to filmmaking?
I initially wanted to be a painter but had studied art history, and felt I knew too much about it, so everything I did felt derivative. There was a vibrant art scene downtown at the time and I met some amazing artists, such as Joan Jonas, Sol Lewitt, Richard Serra, Vito Acconci, Trisha Brown, and Yvonne Rainer, although I felt that women artists, particularly performance artists who used their naked bodies in performance (such as Carolee Schneemann and Joan Jonas) weren’t taken as seriously as male artists.
While artist-filmmakers such as Vito Acconci were making films in Super 8, I became seriously interested in filmmaking after I saw a retrospective of Jean-Luc Godard’s work. I thought it was amazing because I was writing criticism and painting and Godard’s films showed that you could tell a fictional story along with an essay or agitprop at the same time. I can’t remember exactly when I saw Battle of Algiers (dir. Gillo Pontecorvo, 1967), but that was also a huge influence. I didn’t want to make a documentary because I wanted to have more control, although everything I’ve done has resembled a documentary in some way.
There has been recent interest in science-fiction as a rich basis for exploring race, gender, and political power and a renewed interest in works such as Born in Flames and the writings of Octavia Butler that do precisely that. What was the inspiration for Born in Flames, and why did you choose to set the film in the future?
Everyone was collaborating in those days. I met Kathryn [Bigelow] and Becky [Johnston], who were in the Whitney’s [Independent Study] program at the time, through Vito Acconci; Becky was one of his interns. They both used my loft, which I’d turned into a kind of working space: Becky for a film set; Kathryn borrowed my car for her first short film, The Set-Up (1978). Through Kathryn, I was tangentially involved with the group Art & Language. I was reading a lot of Marx and Emma Goldman and thinking about communism and anarchism.
I began to wonder: even if there was some kind of social democratic revolution, would a “woman question” still exist? Would women still fight systematic discrimination? I was also becoming politicized by feminism—the second wave—and increasingly alienated by the art world, even though there were female artists, such as the Guerrilla Girls, protesting male dominance. At the same time I was questioning my sexuality. I became more and more disturbed by the lack of diversity, not just in the art world, but in the worlds of performance art, music as well—the whole downtown “scene.”
So creating the premise—a world after a social-democratic cultural revolution—emerged from these circumstances. I didn’t want to attempt to write a script, since I wanted to discover what different voices of diverse women would say. I needed to draw women into this “fictional” universe. I found Jeanne Satterfield, who plays Adelaide Norris, at the McBurney YMCA, Honey through a woman I pulled out of a lesbian bar. I went uptown to find straight Black women with kids. Hillary Hurst belonged to a lesbian performance group. Most of the women were non-actors, although some had some theater experience. Some of the men were performers—Ron Vawter, who plays a FBI agent, was a member of the Wooster Group. Eric Bogosian was from theater and appeared in his first film role. And Mark Boone, Jr., who since went on to star in Sons of Anarchy. But most of the key women play themselves—Adele, Honey, and especially Flo Kennedy. What I loved was bringing women together from different worlds. Now I wish I had been able to draw in more Latinas and Asian women, but I think the language barrier was too daunting then.
Had I gone to film school I never would have made the film because they would have said: You’re crazy—you have a premise but not a plot. It’s not a documentary; you don’t know if you’ll ever find your story; it’s impossible. But I worked in a dialectical way, responding to the material I shot, “writing” on the editing table, and a story emerged with each group being faithful to its own language. It’s part documentary, part fiction, within a fictional pseudo-science-fictional world that looks like documentary but isn’t.
Born in Flames is unique in depicting, multiple, occasionally conflicting interpretations of feminism. What goals framed your depictions of gender and feminist activism?
I wanted to show images of women who stood for positions without psychoanalyzing individual women or creating psychological portraits of them. Instead it’s about how groups are pushed to act—from peaceful protest to more violent acts. But I wanted the women to have personality at the same time, not just be figureheads delivering rhetoric. Hopefully this worked, and to the extent it does, it’s because women like Adele, Honey, Jeanne, and Flo have personalities that shine through. But the film is definitely agitprop rather than psychological. It’s about collaborating toward a shared goal—a radio station working with a newspaper and the Women’s Army, etc., so alliances can be formed to tear down barriers.
You worked on Born in Flames for nearly five years, and the film is truly independent in its mode of production, financing, and distribution. How did you go about making the film?
Born in Flames ended up costing $40,000, but I never had that much money at one time— I made it in increments of $200. I would rent cameras and Nagras for $25 at a time until I eventually bought a camera and Nagra for the duration of shooting. Ed Bowes, who plays the editor of the Socialist Youth Review in the film, helped set up the “action scenes,” like stealing the U-Haul trucks. He taught me to do a three-light set-up so I could shoot some things myself in my loft. I had a Steenbeck editing table in my loft, which I rented to NYU students for $25 per 8-hour shift and everyone used it. I remember Amos Poe and Deborah Harry passing through at one point. Downtown New York was like the Wild West, a stage set. The graffiti, the burned-out buildings. And it wasn’t hard to find people to help. There was a real community in terms of getting equipment and people to help shoot. But in terms of story evolution, that took time, the “story” grew slowly as I edited and pieces were added. I’m just so grateful that Adele, Honey, Pat Murphy, Jeanne, Sheila —the key players—had the belief and patience to stick with it for so long.
When Ulrich Gregor, from the Berlin Film Festival, saw it at my loft on the editing machine, he said if it could be done by the time of next festival—a few months away—it would be included. So I finished, or I could easily have gone on for another year. I was kind of relieved, Berlin was the exactly the right place for it. Then it played at the Women’s Film Festival in Sceaux and won the first prize, which was phenomenal.
The film has an incredibly powerful soundtrack. How did you connect with Red Krayola and The Bloods and engage them in the project?
Mayo Thompson (the leader of the band, Red Krayola) was involved with Art & Language, so I asked him to write a song. He wrote “Born in Flames.” I loved the title so much, I used it for the title of the film, which I was originally going to call “Les Guerilleres” after the book by Monique Wittig. Adele [Bertei], Isabelle in Born In Flames, decided to sing “Undercover Nation” in the film, and I ended up using it a lot. Adele was part of the downtown punk scene. I’d known her for years before making the film. She’d been in Beth and Scott B’s movies and performed at the Mudd Club, CBGB, and many other clubs. Various other tracks came from here and there.
I didn’t want Born In Flames to be a boring art film, so I wanted a driving, rhythmic track to run simultaneously with speeches, so they didn’t have to be listened to. I hoped the words could work subliminally. The film is about a multiplicity of voices, so even if you hear some words it’s enough. The message, such as it is, is about the need for action.
Born in Flames was recently restored by Anthology Film Archives and has screened regularly. What do you think about the film today?
I’m just happy it is being seen by a younger audience. In the screenings where I’m present, I see both young people and people who may have seen the film when it first came out. I want to hear from the younger generation about why the film interests them now. Perhaps it is because many issues addressed in the film haven’t gone away. Economic issues, Sandra Bland, the murders of black men, women’s issues, gender issues, etc. Maybe the film resonates in ways I’m not aware of… I’d love to discuss them. Things haven’t changed as much as they should have—in some way are worse. I live in West Hollywood, which is the closest to the Village as you can get in terms of a good neighborhood for the LGBT community. But in Hollywood, a mile away, when Tangerine was filmed, a transgender assault happens every couple of months. I’m incredibly angered and saddened by the fact that it has been more than 30 years since I made the film and there’s even more rampant police brutality, increasing homelessness, poverty. The jails are a mess, drug treatment centers are non-existent, abortion is inaccessible in places, suicide is up… I could go on and on. It’s been decades and we need to fight harder than ever.