“BORN IN FLAMES”
A Fantasy of Female Rebellion
Director Lizzie Borden’s 1983 film, “Born in Flames” rocked the foundations of the early Indie film world with its provocative story fantasy of a female rebellion set in America ten years after a social democratic cultural revolution. When Adelaide Norris, the black radical founder of the Woman’s Army, is mysteriously killed, a diverse coalition of women from all races, classes, and sexual preferences comes together to blow the existing system apart. The film is newly restored in high definition for its 35th anniversary and we see that it is even more relevant in today’s political climate.
Early on in the film two men, both of whom remain off screen and unnamed, flip through photographs of Adelaide Norris (Jean Satterfield), attempting to construct her profile as founder of the Women’s Army that “seems to be dominated by blacks and lesbians.” The exchange abruptly cuts to Norris sitting around a kitchen table and talking about employment legislation as the men’s dialogue bleeds in and overlaps for a few seconds, before being dropped entirely. We see here Borden’s directorial strengths and political cognizance by implicitly placing competing dialogues within the same cinematic space even though the two parties aren’t in the same physical place. Immediately, and without actual violent conflict, the tensions of making one’s intentions heard and understood are presented.
“Born in Flames” brings together documentary and dramatic sequences into a free-form narrative that exists “somewhere between essay film, political manifesto, and exploitation.” Scripted scenes of ongoing conversations about organized protests and recent instances of sexism across the U.S. are broken apart by news broadcasts and the didactic pleas of two pirate-radio DJs named Isabel (Adele Bertei) and Honey (Honey). These occur in an alternative America where a socialist revolution took place ten years earlier, but did little to alter the gender gap or bring about comprehensive social progress. The film refuses to adhere to traditional channels of communication. Much of Borden’s aesthetic entails numerous speakers or messages being sent, but little indication of how those messages are being decoded. This repetition causes a fractured rapidity, which could be mistaken for incoherence or a lack of ability on Borden’s part. A certain level of incoherence is part of the film’s coherent understanding of the many channels of communication brought about by competing political rhetoric.
The consistent binary opposition for the Women’s Army as “Terrorists or Revolutionaries?” does not suggest a functional diagnosis for group actions within a consistently reshaping socio-political milieu. The film uses the conflicting terms to suggest that media outlets only highlight oppositional actions to sell ambivalence and fear to consumers. The film addressing ongoing human rights concerns through zeitgeist-infused pop, even though Borden omits explicit references to actual events. The rhetoric is philosophical and it clouds the atmosphere.
Borden’s strengths as an generate intensive responses to injustice. The film still challenges, confronts and captures the imagination. Because the film was made before we had digital paraphernalia, it must be admired if just for the amount of work that went into it. “Born in Flames” answers the question of what if the United States went socialist after a nonviolent revolution and people were still disenfranchised?
Borden made the film over a period of five years with no script and very little money, and it fits the definition of “underground film”. It was well ahead of its time, trading fluently in political savvy and It is still a thoughtful, controversial, decidedly unique sci-fi cautionary tale. Borden radically shows that not even a socialist revolution would eradicate gender inequalities; in her imagined future, it would still fall upon women (rather than the government) to protect one another and fight for equal rights. As a narrative, there is much to be desired. However, the imagery makes up for that lack. We see several strong, black, lesbian protagonists; butch females on the subway moving in immediately to protect a woman as she’s openly harassed by a man; a group of women riding up on bicycles to scare away a rapist and women taking collective action to fight for the right to keep their jobs. “Born in Flames” makes one think differently about life itself, and it is a powerful reminder of independent film’s potential to “subvert the dominant paradigm”.