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The Radical 80s Film That Predicted Today's Political Clusterfuck

In 1983, director Lizzie Borden took $40,000 and a group of diverse women to make the cult feminist dystopia "Born in Flames" about racism, sexism, and the socialist revolution. We sat down with the filmmaker to talk about how much has changed—and hasn...

Fiona Duncan

Fiona Duncan

Stills from "Born in Flames" via Lizzie Borden

A dozens-deep standby line patiently waited for no-shows outside LA's Cinefamily theater last week. The one-night-only screening of Lizzie Borden's 1983 film Born in Flames, newly restored by Anthology Film Archives, had sold out the day before. A few fortunate beings got in at the last minute, some even leaning to watch the 80-minute production from the theater aisles. Like the film's cast, the crowd was predominantly female and queer. I was there at the recommendation of a man, which surprised writer-director-producer Borden when I told her. ("His mom's a lesbian," I explained.)

A documentary-style futurist fiction, Born in Flames is set ten years after a social democratic "revolution of liberation" in the United States. The revolution bore little structural or ideological change; scarcity, poverty, and competition, male institutional privilege, violence against women, and media complicity persist. In this familiarly dystopic setting, a few collectives of rebellious women intersect and debate until they eventually unite over the apparent suicide of a young black woman under police custody. This plot point recalls a recent, real event—the death of Sandra Bland. Indeed, as Borden and the Cinefamily crowd noted, much of Born in Flames is nauseatingly prescient. Under a receding economy, young white men blame "minorities" for stealing their jobs, while minorities endure "meaningless work," unlawful layoffs, and pay disparity. Racially motivated policy brutality is a well-reported norm.

When I spoke with Borden—who changed her name, from Linda Borden, after learning about the axe murderer at a young age—before her screening, she bemoaned how little had changed politically in the 33 years since she had released Born in Flames and admitted how much she had. "I don't even know that I am the person who made it," she said. "Who was I then? I know I was so angry. Sometimes movies have to born out of anger." Her anger was that of a 20-to-25-year-old freshly politicized by feminism and a fluid sexual orientation. She was living in New York, in awe of the oppression around her. "I knew I had to do something."

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It took five years, $40,000, and the commitment of dozens to make Born in Flames. A rapid-cut assemblage, Borden stole, found, and "borrowed" footage and music for much of it. She brought together punk musicians like Adele Bertei, conceptually trained artists like the director Kathryn Bigelow, and civil rights activists like Florynce Kennedy to act. She filmed at actual happenings and staged demonstrations. The result is conscious agitprop: pulse-quickening, polemic, and playful.

Given ongoing topicality of Born in Flames, Lizzie Borden believes, "it's time to be angry again—it's time to fight." She called for this at Cinefamily's screening, before her audience was ushered out the theater's rear exit to a terrace where we were promised further discussion and drinks. There, we were informed by two blonde women in fitted glittering garments that we couldn't stay. The space was reserved for another party: The third season of HBO's Silicon Valley was set to celebrate its premiere.

BROADLY: I want to talk logistics. How did you make this film?
Lizzie Borden: I always say there are two kinds of films, inductive and deductive. Deductive being when you have a script and make a film from it, and inductive being when you induce a film from a premise or a subject. This film started from a premise: If there were a social democratic revolution in America, what would it be like if things didn't turn out the way women expected it to, and a radical group of women sought change? But the real reason I made it was because I wanted to meet more diverse women. At that point, I was questioning my sexuality. I wasn't sure if I was gay or straight. (Ultimately, bisexual.) I couldn't relate to popular feminism, like Ms. magazine or Gloria Steinem; even their clothes I found so middle class. I lived in downtown New York, which was a hotbed of women artists—filmmakers, theater people, painters, performance artists, and punk musicians. It was the world of Art & Language, which Kathryn Bigelow, Becky Johnston, and I were involved in.

It was very creative, but it wasn't very political, and it was almost all white. I knew that I couldn't write a script that would represent what I wanted to, because I could only represent my own culture and language, so I sought to bring in other women. I found Jean Satterfield, who played Adelaide Norris, at this YMCA I used to go to. I would see her playing basketball from the running shack. I found Honey though her roommate, who I met at a lesbian bar. We would do these improvised scenes, and then I would take those scenes and cut them on an editing table; I shot in reversal. I would buy leftover short ends of film stock and cut through them. I would save what I wanted to and then sometimes I would use what I had as the basis for an actual scripted scene. The film's shape and form grew out of it happening slowly, and the ideas kind of wrote themselves.

How did you finance the production?
Whenever I had enough money—let's say $200—I would call people together and we would go out and shoot. I could rent a camera downtown for $25. I would pay people $25 to be in a shot. I had a Steenbeck editing machine in my apartment, and I would rent it out in shifts. NYU students would pay $25 to use it for eight hours; that fed back into the budget. The special effect of the World Trade Towers [in the film] only cost $200, but it took a long time to find someone who could create the effect for that little. We would film in friends' lofts and around town. One of the big protests in the film was a real demonstration I had Kathryn, Becky, and Pat [Murphy] go to. The secretary strike was fake, but then real secretaries decided they wanted to march! I borrowed and stole footage. What kept it together and gave it a pace was the rhythm of the editing to music. I wanted this simultaneity of voices, so that one could see the echoes in and multiplicity of different women's voices, sort of echoed by Flo Kennedy's statement about which would you rather: one lion or 500 mice? ["They always talk about unity. We need unity, unity, but I always say, if you were the army, and the school, and the head of the health institutions, and the head of the government, and all of you had guns, which would you rather see come through the door: one lion, unified, or 500 mice? My answer is 500 mice can do a lot of damage and disruption."]

Flo's is so incredible. Actually the whole film is beautifully styled. Did you costume it?
No, we didn't have a budget for costumes. People just wore what they wore.

When you approached women you didn't know to be in this film, what did you say?
I'd just say, "I'm making this film about really radical women," and I told them the premise. Some women were into it and some thought I was crazy. The hardest women to get involved were the women with kids uptown, in the Bronx and in Harlem. Shooting would take so long, they'd have to wait around and come downtown. Since I was only paying $25 a day, it was hardly worth it.

What was the initial release of the film like? Where did it play, and what kind of feedback did you receive?
It was first shown at the Women's Film Festival in Créteil, France, and it got the first prize there. Then it went to Berlin, New York, Toronto. One of the most interesting reactions was in London, where I got flak for not being black. Did I have the right to speak on behalf of black women? That became an interesting discussion. I liked to travel with women from the film because I didn't want the film to be about my voice. I may have put it together, but the film was born from this multiplicity. I wanted it to be an organizing tool. I wanted the film to help me engage in dialogue because I'm actually very shy, and not political in the sense of a political system or government.

How has it been showing the film now?
Well, there are two distinct audiences. There's the audience who saw it when it first came out, and then there's the young audience who's discovered it—a kind of Occupy Wall Street audience, and younger, even. Although, when I really think about it, it makes me sad that a lot of the issues that were relevant then are relevant now. It makes me angry that that poverty, equal pay, and issues of choice are still issues—it's outrageous.

That's what hit me—a terror at how relevant the film is. At the same time, I found watching Born in Flames to be cathartic, or soothing, remembering that these struggles have a history. I also loved seeing ideas in there that I wouldn't have expected from the time, like the Wages for Housework bit. [In a pivotal scene in Born in Flames, the social democratic president proposes to implement a program recognizing housework as paid labor.] A few years ago, the idea of that movement trended among the feminist/progressive/whatever network. The 70s treatise was excavated and discussed in relation to contemporary capitalism.
It's interesting how certain ideas are cyclical. For me, some of the things in Born in Flames that have come back around on the darker side are racism, police brutality, Sandra Bland, and obviously, the bombing of the World Trade Center, which is bizarre but not as bizarre as people think. That it actually went down is abhorrent to me, but it was always a target. When New York wasn't so built up, it stood [out in] the landscape like sore thumb. Back then, you could walk to the top of the Trade Center, and there was no security whatsoever, as we show in the final scene when we plant our pseudo-bomb—our Play-Doh with wire in it. It was a more innocent time—pre-9/11, pre-Patriot Act.