“Choice Is Paramount to Everything”: Filmmaker Lizzie Borden on the Radical Feminism of ‘Born in Flames’

Red Krayola’s “Born in Flames” opens Lizzie Borden’s 1983 feminist film of the same name: “At a new life we took aim, we set the vast conglomerates aflame. . . . / We are born in flames.”

The movie’s ambiguous ending leaves us with an explosion, in which the transmission tower of the World Trade Center is destroyed following the president’s broadcast about a wages for housework policy. The radical Women’s Army in the film, who use pirate radio, wheatpasting, and protests to communicate their message about equality, will not have their voices silenced any longer. And the film feels more relevant than ever.

Anthology Film Archives will screen a brand-new 35mm preservation print Borden’s pioneering film February 19 to 25, with the filmmaker and cast members in attendance.

Flavorwire recently spoke to Borden, who is completing work on a book of interviews with exotic dancers and several potential TV pilots, about the radical politics behind Born in Flames.

Flavorwire: You worked on Red Shoe Diaries and Silk Stalkings. Have you thought about trying to reenter the realm of television to explore your filmic language and tell more women’s stories?

Lizzie Borden: I’m trying to. In fact, one of the things I’m trying to do out here is finish writing a couple of pilots and set stuff up. But it’s really hard, because there is no middle anymore. Sundance films and festival films still exist. They’re very female-oriented. There’s a lot of talk about women having low averages in film, but if you look at festival films, women do a lot. They’re well represented in tiny films. But we’re not in huge, huge movies. The middle ground of film kind of fell apart and doesn’t exist anymore, and there’s so much competition in television. Netflix and Amazon are such major players, and the competition has gotten huge. They’re also changing their model. Since Jill Soloway and a lot of these amazing women got into it early, when it was still somewhat second-tier, and now it’s first-tier, it is really hard. People do realize that streaming is the best way to go. Theaters are now dying…

I am writing pilots, because I love that kind of storytelling. Everything out here is very competitive. So many of these things that succeed are about men and not women. That’s what’s so miraculous about shows like Orange Is the New Black. When I scroll through Netflix for stuff to watch, a lot of the stuff that features women comes from England and not America.

A lot of it is a little too soft for me. I like really edgy stuff. The stuff I would want to do is about choice, because what I see is a lack. It’s just so hard to get the financing for that, because everybody wants to soften it. If you look at issues like abortion, what you see is stuff like Obvious Child or Grandma, which I’m all for, but in my opinion they’re soft. Someone wants an abortion and gets it, and that’s how it should be, but is that such an improvement upon the way it’s usually portrayed these days in movie where a woman has a miscarriage? This is incredible that it seems so radical that a woman gets an abortion. It boggles my mind that this is an issue today. For me, I wanted to do something much more radical. That’s what I think is so radical about Transparent and its exploration of sexuality and Orange Is the New Black with its everything. That just goes right into it with issues that are never dealt with.

'Born in Flames'
‘Born in Flames’

In Born in Flames, one of the characters says, “For at least some length of time, we have control of the language, we have control of ourselves.” There are a lot of discussions happening right now about how we can make Hollywood more inclusive to women and how we can better represent the stories of women on the big and small screens. Are we really taking control of the language as audiences and women filmmakers?

I think it’s happening at a grassroots level. It often starts in exhibition. These stories, I read about them in festivals, but then I never get to see them. I think that what happens is that they’re not picked up, shown, and publicized. They’re being gated at the level of distribution. Maybe what has to happen is other channels and other kinds of publicity for them to be seen. And not just American. There are so many stories about women all over the world that I’m interested in hearing about or terrible things that I’d be interested in seeing covered in a documentary — horrible things that are happening to women and good things. But we’re not seeing any of that, because we don’t have the distribution. With Netflix, when I see what the new releases are, after a while there’s a monotony. But then when I just finish looking through all the Sundance entries, some of them look really interesting. Some are by women, and I wonder how many of these are going to be visible to me as a viewer.

The question is, how do we somehow make our voices universal? Because women have a need to make these extraordinary things — and not just in America. Is there some way to make a channel? Is there some way that someone like Oprah can help? Is there some way that someone can direct us to where to publish them on YouTube so we know where to look in all this great mass of material? The truth is, everything is available, but where does the financial aspect enter into it, so women who are doing this can continue to do this?

American women have it harder than, I would say, English, Australian, Canadian, French women have it. Because they can continue to make films at the million or $2 million level. In England, they keep making television and acquire more experience and skills than women in America do — and a body of work. Like the woman who made Fish Tank [filmmaker Andrea Arnold], which is amazing. There are more grants and possibilities for them. Here, it just doesn’t exist so much. Women do persist in very low-budget movies, but they’re very hard to see. In the old days, there used to be many more venues for watching film and much more community. Downtown NY, there used to be a whole lot of places to see movies, and you did. You had to go.

In terms of what I would consider my own work, which is [about] edgy women who don’t have voices, these are the themes I write. Empowerment and choices are two themes that really mean something to me. There are a lot of films like that, and women trying to do exactly that same thing, but at a certain point, if their films don’t have a life, what happens? And if they don’t get to make more films, what happens? If they can’t continue after one or two little movies, that’s a problem. People can find a movie online somehow, but that doesn’t foster the filmmaker’s continuity in terms of that filmmaker finding enough money to do it again. It’s just so hard. The first time around, maybe it’s a little money, maybe it’s a Kickstarter thing, maybe it’s family and friends, maybe it’s a couple of credit cards — but how often can you do that?

It’s not sustainable. A Dutch friend of mine is a writer and lives in the forest near Antwerp, and the government gives him money to write poetry and focus on his art.

It’s really an extraordinary thing to foster the arts. Imagine being paid to write poetry or make paintings. There are places in the literary world that support this. People I know who did a couple of films, they teach.

Julie Dash teaches.

That’s the problem. So many of the female filmmakers I know, and it’s a pretty wide group, they made one or two movies for very cheap, and it’s just really frustrating, because it’s so impossible to get another film going. And their films were pretty amazing. Daughters of the Dust is phenomenal. Just beautiful. But not commercial, per se.

When I saw Transparent, I thought, “I have to do films,” like when I did Born in Flames and Working Girls — which are the only two films I feel creatively satisfied by. I went to movie jail after I did this awful movie, Love Crimes. I should have taken my name off it, but I was bullied into not taking my name off it. There are things in it that I didn’t shoot. It’s just not my movie, really. It was awful. I was such an innocent, because I came from being an independent. I hadn’t gone to film school. I was confused, because I was given notes from the two different companies making the film, and they canceled each other out. I went from confused to, then, writing something that was the equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder. I went from movie jail to movie prison. The only things I was offered after that were sexual thrillers. Erotic thrillers are all about being punished for sleeping with the wrong person. I didn’t want to do that. I thought, “I have to go back to doing something under the radar where I don’t have to ask anyone for money.” If it’s going to be really edgy, that’s the way to do it.

There is a film about choice that I almost made with Susan Sarandon. The irony is that it’s still relevant, even more, today… It’s about an abortionist. It’s a period piece, and they’re more expensive than contemporary pieces, and who knows if I can get the money for that, but I still believe in it. It’s not just about the choice of the abortion, it’s about the choice in everything — what movies you show, what books you read, etc. It’s set in 1953. I just get so angry, and I realize one of the things that really motivates me in terms of anything is anger. Just being angry at a culture for telling you what you can and can’t do. I think that’s why I’m drawn to certain things. Choice is paramount to everything. The election right now is feeding into that — this argument between women saying they don’t have to vote for Hillary Clinton because she’s a woman. I am pro-Hillary, but I understand a younger generation saying, “No, I’m pro-Bernie [Sanders], because I don’t want to be told I have to vote for a woman, because I’m a woman.”

We see a lot of the women in Born in Flames scared to join the Women’s Army, because they’re afraid that it could hurt the progress that’s already been made — even though the revolution is reverting back to the old oppressive, male-dominated system. It’s a real mentality that a lot of women, and other people, share. So it did make me think of the presidential race, and Trump shouting about making America great again.

The reason I had set it after the first social democratic cultural revolution was that, even after the revolution, there still will be the “woman problem.” Women will still be discriminated against. There still will be white, male privilege. Even after the most idealistic win, what do you do about the “woman question”?

Born_Flames_Closeup
Honey, ‘Born in Flames’

The film is a reminder that we’re still arguing about the same things all these years later, and that there are many people still fighting for legitimacy. I thought of the #BlackLivesMatter movement when listening to the conversation between two of the socialist newspaper editors, who are white women. Some of the criticism directed at #BlackLivesMatter is that it’s just purely reactionary and hysterical. The characters say: “Their politic seems it’s just based on spontaneous reaction to any kind of oppression without bothering to analyze it first.” And the other woman responds: “But that says a lot more about the way we define what constitutes the political than any inability they have to define themselves. That kind of spontaneous reaction is their platform. They’re linking their experience of oppression with an image or notion of a woman’s army. They would find the kind of dialogue we use as prohibitive or as a substitute for action.”

I also had chills watching the scenes with Jeanne Satterfield’s Adelaide Norris, who was found hanged in her jail cell and whose cause of death is called into question. It’s hard not to think of the death of Sandra Bland, who was also an activist.

It’s scary that certain problems just don’t go away. It started to be scary for me with the World Trade Center. That was eerie for me many years ago. Born in Flames was showing one night in New York, when the first bombing happened. The towers, the transmission towers, were there so women could get their voices heard. The systematic murder of black men and women has never stopped. I just think that now there’s more attention paid to it. Before it was ignored and swept under the rug. Perhaps it’s because of our black president not allowing it to be or because of #BlackLivesMatter not letting it go.

In Born in Flames, you present viewers with multiple representations of race, class, age, and sexuality. And you do it without sex, without men for the most part, and without judgment, leaving things open-ended. What are the different reactions you received from different audiences? What did female and male audiences, white and non-white viewers, identify with?

It shifted [over time]. When I first made it, people felt it was really low-tech. It had its audience in terms of a mirror to the kind of women who were in it — a kind of lesbian, feminist audience. Some people were disappointed and shocked I wasn’t a black lesbian. At that time, I was calling myself bisexual. I was with Honey in Born in Flames. The diverse look of the people in it, the various sexual representations of the women, some looking more butch and some more straight, that seems to be more acceptable now.

Ever since Occupy Wall Street, it seems to also represent a new anger, a re-found anger, at the establishment. I don’t know how it’s found a new audience or if things have come full circle to a kind of dissatisfaction with the culture as it is and the reason for the kind of socialism of, let’s say, Bernie Sanders, but that’s what I found the last few times I’ve been present when it was shown. I see that kind of acceptance even with male audiences.

Usually what I see is two different groups of people: women who saw it when it first came out, that generation, and a younger audience that just likes the politics, the energy, and the music. When I made it, I didn’t want to make a boring art movie. I wanted there to be text in it, but I also wanted there to be a layering of all the voices. I wanted there to be music, hard-charging music.

It does play like a science-fiction, documentary musical — not only in the songs that play, but in the rhythm of the media broadcasts and how the women talk.

Yes. I wanted there to be a spirit of revolution as opposed to some lecture about it, because I also wanted it to be about the [different] ways to go. You don’t have to make up your mind. At the end of the day, after the World Trade Center thing goes off, the logic is that a lot of the women would be arrested. One of my film references is The Battle of Algiers [Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film]. One of the FBI agents is drawing those concentric circles, that’s actually a direct steal for the structure of the Women’s Army. The women are pushed to that point by frustration. You start by trying to convince people through print, then you try to convince them by having them watch things, and then other ways. If no other ways work, then what do you do? Is violence the way? Everyone starts out being idealistic, but what happens when change doesn’t come? I think of that with our country, and I think of that with Bernie Sanders. How do you give people the free education? How do you dismantle the health system? How do you do that? It’s so fucking frustrating.

There’s a frustration, too, when you see something like Transparent. Every time Jeffrey Tambor wins an award and makes a speech, or someone like Caitlyn Jenner makes a speech, and says, “I have a lot of money. I dedicate this to the transgender community, which doesn’t have a lot of money”… I live in West Hollywood. West Hollywood is a mecca for transgender and gay people. Did you see the movie Tangerine? That’s maybe a mile from where I live. Every month, somebody gets killed down there. It’s not gay-friendly. It’s dangerous for transgender women. It’s almost like, wait a second, California is blue pretty much, but Hollywood is kind of red. People come in there, and they hate them. There’s an incredible romanticizing of transgender people, but it’s dangerous. This isn’t like Idaho, but it is Idaho. There’s so much to be angry about.

A lot of progress has been made, and young women feel empowered in a lot of ways, but it’s only in certain groups. A half hour away from me is South Central Los Angeles, and there’s no food there. There’s no grocery stores. Poverty is horrible and real.

Lizzie Borden directing 'Born in Flames'
Lizzie Borden directing ‘Born in Flames’

You made the comment that people were surprised you weren’t a black lesbian. Did you receive any backlash from audiences and critics, because you are a white filmmaker?

In England I did. Not here so much. Here, I think, because I often presented the film with the women who made it, and because I was very conscious of my voice blending with the voices of the women. I didn’t make it with a script. It was an inductive instead of a deductive film. I made the film because all I knew were white feminists, and the white feminists were becoming Ms. magazine feminists, which I myself didn’t identify with too much. In the bigger picture of Ms. magazine and world of feminism, there were a lot of arguments about whether lesbians should be showcased, because that might hurt the argument of feminism with a larger audience. It might scare men off. In the second wave of feminism, that was one of the big things going on. To me, black lesbians were the ones who were the most daring, the women with the most to lose, and therefore the ones who were on the forefront of change — so I made them the most heroic. I also realized that there were so many different voices not represented in mainstream feminism, but I didn’t know any of them. I went to different bars and found women and asked them to be in the film. The woman who played Adelaide Norris [Jeanne Satterfield], she was always at the YMCA playing basketball.

So you went about your daily life, watching people and getting to know them?

Exactly. Jeanne mostly followed a script. Honey and Adele [Bertei] created their own characters. Flo Kennedy was just Flo Kennedy. We never knew what Flo Kennedy was going to say.

Flo Kennedy
Flo Kennedy

Did your method of working together differ, then? She has such an incredible history with activism and feminism.

Yeah, you couldn’t control what she was going to say. She always shocked us. She was very ill when we filmed the movie. She underwent all these operations. But she was gung-ho. When we had to do a scene outside, she did a scene outside. She got the gist of something, and she just had her sayings. She was phenomenal. She was a titan. Of all the Ms. magazine women, she was even a titan among them. Also, to be a black woman with those white women in that context of early women’s liberation, was powerful… She was a pioneer.

To make the movie was about creating circumstances so the women could be these characters. And the ones that hung in there for five years became the steady characters. Honey died five years ago, and she would have loved to have been at this retrospective. For her, she created some of the poetry-rap. Adele’s stuff was Adele’s stuff. Those were her songs, that was her. Radio Ragazza was Adele. I knew her before I made Born in Flames. Trying to wrangle these women was sometimes kind of hard. Some were doing drugs, various drugs, drugs I didn’t even know existed at the time. I was very innocent.

But only in England did I have a problem, where a group of black women basically said I didn’t have the right to speak for black women. It was all right. I never minded that. It’s an occasion for dialogue. I like the idea of using film as an organizing instrument. That’s what I miss now, the idea of that. Jill Soloway obviously uses Transparent as that. I don’t like the idea of a film that’s just entertainment. There’s enough stuff in the world. Born in Flames, when I made it, was really about going to festivals and other places, and using it. It’s a pushback thing. Even going to places and getting attacked, it was like, “OK, what are your feelings? What are your thoughts? What does this provoke in you?” It was all about the discussion. You would have people in the audience arguing with each other, because they had different feelings. I like that. That’s what I was missing. I came from the art world, which was mostly male-oriented. Female artists were completely shut out. That’s what really politicized me. When I started to make film, I realized that I didn’t know any black women at all. I feel like I could have tried even harder to include more Asian or Hispanic women in Born in Flames.

But you did include Algerian women.

Yes. A friend of mine, Ed Bowes, who plays the editor of the socialist newspaper where Kathryn Bigelow’s character works, his brother Tom went to Algeria and shot that footage. Back then, there used to be a beach in Manhattan. That was before they built that big development downtown. So, I actually brought Jeanne Satterfield down there to the beach and tried to match that with the desert footage. That was real, original footage of women training.

One cast member might surprise first-time viewers. How did you come to know and work with Kathryn Bigelow?

I’ve known Kathryn forever. She was in the Whitney program. I actually helped her on her first movie [the short film The Set-Up]. The scene where two guys beat each other up, that’s my car. All of us were involved in the downtown scene with the same people. I don’t think she ever saw Born in Flames. I think she felt the acting was really bad. Nobody was a real actor. But yeah, she’s still a friend. We hike maybe once a year or something like that….

We were both involved in a group called Art Language. One of the guys in Art Language, he wrote the song “Born in Flames.” I was going to call the film Guérillères after the Monique Wittig book, but I thought people would call it “gorillas.” Mayo Thompson, who was in that group Art Language, wrote the song, and “born in flames” was one of the lyrics. That’s how I named the film. The way I knew everyone in the Whitney program was because I used to go out with Vito Acconci and Becky [Johnston], the performance artist. Becky was working for Vito Acconci, and I think I met Kathryn through Becky. They used to share a loft. We all worked together. This was the late 1970s, around ’78 or ’79. Everybody did everything with everybody. I had a loft, they used to use my loft. That community is something I really miss here. That’s how that started.

In terms of women, becoming swept up in feminism made me then question everything. Black women distrusted white feminists, and even had a different word for it. They preferred the word “womanist.” That made me say, “Wait a second. They want the same things we do, but they’re using a different language.” There has to be different languages for the same thing, so what if there was a film where everyone is after the same goals, but everyone is using different languages? That’s the whole point, is somehow being able to work together. I wanted to use music as a way of showing language, too. Music can also be a call to arms.

born-in-flames-1983-001-00m-xux-women-looking-at-each-other-behind-desk

Was there a particular moment during your discovery of feminism that really stands out in your mind as a defining moment?

It’s hard to say. It was a transition. It comes back to something recent with Jill Soloway. When I saw Transparent and I thought of Jill Soloway, it suddenly brought me to a constellation of thinking of myself back in the day. And thinking about her and her life, and thinking, “Oh my god, here’s a woman who is involved with Eileen Myles. She’s exploring her sexuality.” I was thinking of myself as somebody who was exploring my sexuality. There was a lot of anger, too. There was a feeling I couldn’t identify. I don’t know that it was a specific moment. A lot of people ask me what women’s films I was affected by. I was affected by Godard films, because I saw you could put together the visual and the verbal. I thought that was radical. I was in a world of men, of Vito Acconci and Richard Serra, making movies. Women were treated a certain way. It was a wave of stuff.

What was building was anger, too. Things in retrospect have been affecting me. Reading Jill Soloway’s book, one sentence really struck me: “Everything that Sarah Jessica Parker ever wore for Sex in the City gave her pain.” That kind of femininity was never anything I could completely identify with. A lot of what she writes about in the book helped me identify with where I was at that time and the kind of anger I had and my inability to identify with certain feminists, who were the spokeswomen for feminism at that time. That singular voice that was coming from feminism felt too upper-middle class, so I had to search for a kind of other, because I felt other. I needed to find a way to express the frustration I was feeling. I needed to find the voices who would collectively write the script and I would be an agent for editing it and putting it together. The presentation was straight to the camera. It was about appealing to you, the audience. If I had gone to film school, I never would have made the film. People would have told me never to make the film. For me, it was about finding out what I thought by picking out women who could help me understand and put it together.