In Queer Time: Lizzie Borden, director ‘Born in Flames’ in conversation


In conjunction with ‘Embodied Knowledge: Queensland Contemporary Art’, participating artist Callum McGrath has curated the free film program ‘In Queer Time’ screening in the Australian Cinémathèque, GOMA from 12 to 24 August 2022. McGrath spoke with Lizzie Borden, the director of Born in Flames 1983 about her film.

Lizzie Borden Born in Flames’ Trailer

Born in Flames 1983 / Director: Lizzie Borden

Callum McGrath / Lizzie, to begin with could you please explain how ‘Born in Flames’ came about. What was at the forefront of your thinking at the time?

Lizzie Borden / I wanted to be a painter. I went to Wellesley, a women’s school outside of Boston and became an art critic, kind of by accident because one of my professors introduced me to the editor of Artforum Magazine, who invited me to write. So, art was at the heart of everything once I moved to New York rather than film. Because I had access to Artforum I met everyone. I was especially close to Richard Serra, the sculptor, who became a huge influence on me. But the artists I loved most were women – dancers, performance artists – many of whom used their naked bodies in their art, like Hannah Wilke, Carolee Schneemann, Joan Jonas and Yvonne Rainer. I saw that women working that way were treated as ‘lesser’ – paid less, seen as less important – while an artist like Vito Acconci – also a friend – who did nude performances, was held in higher regard. Because many of these artists also made films and videos, I was influenced by films shown in galleries much more than films, even though I loved directors like Cassavetes and Fassbinder. Films in galleries, often short, had texture and felt almost like sculpture in a three-dimensional setting. A big inspiration was also Godard – how he combined fiction with direct address. I loved the idea that you could film an essay and tell a story in the same movie.

Recognising the disparity of how male and female artists were treated was intensified when I was politicised by second wave feminism, so I wanted to make a political film. Before Born In Flames, I made a film I put in the closet for a long time, Regrouping 1976. It started as a documentary about four women in the art world who had a women’s group.  It was meant to be a collaborative film, and then it wasn’t, because I couldn’t ‘break in’. Instead of a straight documentary, I took over and it became a very experimental black-and-white film about the nature of groups. I put together a second group that included artists like Barbara Kruger talking about how groups could function, with a simultaneous layer of voice-over and shots of women in neither of the groups, heavily edited (a precursor of the style of Born In Flames). The first group became very angry at me so I just put it in the closet for many years.

The style of Regrouping informed Born In Flames, as well as my desire to collaborate in a positive way and to work with women who weren’t only white and middle-class, since that was the makeup of the art world in the late 70s and 80s.

Another art world influence on Born In Flames was the group Art & Language. I was never formally part of it but read a lot of the texts they were studying, mostly Marxist and Leninist. What really struck me was the idea of ‘the woman question’ or ‘the woman problem.’ I kept wondering “What does that mean? That if there were a socialist revolution, women’s problems would be dealt with secondarily? That women were second-class citizens?” So I decided that I would make a film based on that premise. It had to be ‘social democratic cultural revolution’ because the United States is a highly developed capitalist system. Then my question was “If there was that kind of a cultural revolution, who would be most affected by it?”. I thought it would be women of colour. Women who were at the edge of the gender spectrum. The problem was, I didn’t really know any gay Black women, so I had to look for them. It was hard and took a long time.

Because I began with only this premise and had no idea where it was going, this wasn’t a film I could have made had I gone to film school. It wasn’t going to be a classic documentary although it uses documentary techniques. I knew it was going to have a fictional narrative, but I didn’t find a story attached to it until the third-year in. I wanted there to be a collaboration with some of the main actors but I didn’t want to put words in the mouths of Black women. I needed to find a way to enable the characters to say things in their own way, with their own meaning, and that there would be multiple points of view expressed at the same time. It took five years to make, and it would have I think taken longer, but Ulrich Gregor from the Berlin Film Festival saw it in my loft on the editing machine in 1982 and said, “If you finish by February, it’s in the Berlin Film Festival”.

You started to touch on this already but I was also interested in the process of shooting the film, specifically the more ‘do-it-yourself’ or experimental aspects. Was the film’s grass rootedness something that you were conscious of at the time?

I didn’t have a choice because I had no money. I could only shoot when I had money for a shot, then I would edit that material until I had money to shoot again. But I had a lot of time and the means of production in my hands. In downtown New York at that time, there were a couple of places where you could get inexpensive cameras and sound recording machines. Eventually I bought a camera and a Nagra sound recorder which I sold when I finished the film. I had a Steenbeck editing machine in my loft which I rented out 24 hours a day to pay for itself. So do-it-yourself became the aesthetic. I always had a camera in the car to just grab shots. The only scenes with more so-called ‘production value’ and planned out beforehand were the ones like the bicycle brigade and women stealing the U-Haul trucks. Still, the overall aesthetic is do-it-yourself because there is a mix of documentary and fiction. Some is documentary style. Some is fiction, based on the documentary footage we shot. Some is found footage – riots, police attacking protesters. Other marches are real ones we staged that real people joined. Some other marches really occurred that the film characters walked into, like the women from the socialist paper.

The moment I knew I had a story for the film was when a friend of mine came back from Africa with footage of women training in the Sahara. This inspired the idea to have Adelaide Norris go to the Sahara to talk about importing arms, come back, be arrested, be murdered in jail and have it declared suicide. That became the fictional throughline.

The song ‘Born in Flames’ was written for the film by Mayo Thompson, then I used the title of the song for the entire film. The newscasters were the very last part. I hired out-of-work newscasters and wrote their speeches. Overall, the editing was the key part of how the film came together and what created the energy. The propulsion.  

Thank you Lizzie, although as you said the do-it-yourself mentality was the only way the film could happen however for me, the way you describe this process of making and editing the film is what makes the film so special.  

I think the notions of queer in the film are less explicit than some viewers may expect from the framing of this program, and I was thinking about historical connections I could make. Motorcycle groups like ‘Dykes on bikes’ has an interesting parallel to say the bicycle brigade. Is this something that you were aware of when making the film?

This came from me living in New York. When I first moved there, I rode around on a bike and I was so annoyed at being catcalled, I used to ride around with eggs in my basket and would throw them at cars. I’d also ride the other way down the street, because New York has so many one-way streets. I love the idea of the bike as an instrument of revolution. There’s a group in East LA of Ovaria Psycos, a women of colour bike brigade. I hope many bicycle brigades exist.

I don’t consider Born In Flames science fiction. I think it’s more fantasy. Many queer films are about queer personal relationships, but this is about a group under fire and the only literal discussion of queerness is by the outsiders – the FBI characters. Incidentally, there are a lot of queer men in the film, some of whom were, sadly, early deaths from AIDS. The FBI characters talk pejoratively about the women’s ‘lifestyle’, but the women are just doing what they do, it’s just who they are. The film doesn’t get into their personal relationships. I would imagine the socialist editors are heterosexual, they’re presented as such but it never comes up. Some of the characters pursue traditional ‘male’ jobs like construction – the theme of labour is a big theme in the film. This is contrasted with montages of women’s hands doing ‘women’s work’, including cutting hair and wrapping chicken in a factory. Labour is an important theme in the film.

There is a startling relevance of the politics of the film, notions of progress and change, feel like they’re being paralleled in today’s society. Do you think that’s part of the reason the film has received a renewed interest since its restoration in 2016?

The restoration happened around the same time as the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protest movement and I think the audience shifted to a younger generation. I think maybe a lot of people didn’t identify or relate to the women in the film when it first came out. That may have changed. If so, that’s great, but if there’s political relevance, it’s because there has been so much backsliding politically now. The situation for women in the United States is so dire, it’s just impossible for me to talk about without getting angrier than I was back then. It’s just so hard because everyone I know feels so powerless. Hopefully the states – like Kansas – will reject what the Supreme Court did in reversing Roe vs. Wade. So much is on the line now – not just abortion rights. Gay rights. Trans rights. But one of the great things that’s happened is the increased vocabulary available and the ability to live out one’s true nature in one’s chosen gender. I think some of the women in the film would have chosen a different gender assignment had it been available to them back then.

Born In Flames is really about asking a series of questions, including, “What does it take to push women into picking up arms?”. One of the great influences on the film is Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers 1966, which I saw many times. I borrowed so many shots and ideas. My question for anybody walking out of Born In Flames is, “What happens after the last shot?”. Obviously, the women would be arrested. It may not be a smart in a capitalist country to use arms. I personally think resistance has to include both underground anti-legal activity as well as the electoral process for change to occur. I wanted the end feeling of the film to be martial, inspiring conversation about the right thing to do, about what could bring about systemic change.

Something you touched on is anger. I read in the film a deep pessimism towards the state and its ability to create progressive change. Do you think that reading of pessimism is misguided or something you were feeling at the time?

I don’t think I’m a pessimist, otherwise, why would we continue to fight? Anger is an inspiring force. I think anger can be seen as a force that is good. Everything Flo Kennedy said in Born In Flames was her own. She would say things like, “Which would you rather see come through the door – one lion or 500 mice?”. It’s the question of how we can work together. How can we, as women, not fall apart trying to be one gigantic voice, but instead use subsets to combine forces. To me, it’s a question because so often groups tend to implode.

For me, that’s part of the reason the film is so fascinating, is that its politics aren’t reductive. It’s that idea of collective action or a group coming together that is depicted in a way that allows space for complicated conversation and a different points of view to come through. Some films may feel the need to simplify something for an audience so that it’s easily digestible, but that’s not how the world works and that’s not how politics (both state and grassroots) works and that’s not how conversations actually happen.

I think that’s the wonderful thing about collaboration. Pat Murphy, for example, played one of the news editors in the film. During the making of Born In Flames she flew back to Ireland to direct her film Maeve 1981 which was made in a real war zone. When she came back to be in this ‘pretend’ war zone of Born In Flames, her ideas and words were her own. The other women who stayed with the film to the end also contributed their political thinking, so the overall politics was a product of many imaginations.

I was curious about the reception of the film from the community. What was that like at the time of the film’s initial release?

One of the first screenings was downtown on a pull-down curtain, so it really started out as an art world film. The first few years it was very much a festival film. Then it was written about and gradually became an academic film that people taught in schools and was shown here and there. I think because it was do-it-yourself and experimental, it was difficult for a lot of people to understand the narrative. Only around 2016 did it match up with certain real-world politics and at that point, it was restored to 35 millimetres, which meant it could be shown in a in a heightened visual format and didn’t look quite as gritty. The reception to the film might also have changed because of the way that people are now making and watching films on iPhones, so they’re more sympathetic to a do-it-yourself aesthetic.

Not only is the film itself set in a speculative semi-future, but then the film as an object was almost waiting for its future to happen for it to be received in the way it has in recent years.  

That’s true, because back then it looked as if I did a lot of art directing to create these burnt-out buildings. Now, New York has created gardens where the buildings were burned out and cleaned up graffiti so the dystopia happened in reverse. The film has met its future and now it looks so bizarre. I feel a lot of nostalgia for downtown and the way it used to be. Even though I went outside of the community to find women to work with, there was a sense of community downtown because so many people collaborated to make their work – artists, theatre people, musicians and filmmakers.

Everything was so raw and had a backlot feel. Sometimes people ask how I knew to blow up the transmission tower of the World Trade Centre years before it happened. It was the tallest building in the landscape of downtown New York at that time. There were no grocery stores. There were just these gigantic twin towers, which we loved to hate.

I experience a lot of nostalgia when I see Born In Flames, because that is the real lobby of the World Trade Centre. Those are the real escalators. That is the real elevator. No one stopped us from going in. The eerie thing is that Born In Flames was showing downtown the same night as the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre. The irony is that that the entire sequence wouldn’t need to happen now. You wouldn’t have to go to the top of the World Trade Centre and blow up the transmission tower if you had a cell phone. You could just push a button and have everything on social media.

It took a year to find somebody who would do that special effect for $200. That’s another challenge, how do you do things for very little money? I finally found a Japanese artist who made a tiny mock-up of two sides of the building. The effect is created from blowing glitter through a straw, slowed way down. It’s all about artists. The film started with the art world – that’s essentially where it began and ended.

Promotional still from Born in Flames 1983 / Director: Lizzie Borden / Image courtesy: Anthology Film Archives & Lizzie Borden

In Queer Time / 12 – 24 August 2022 / Free / View the program

Born In Flames 1983
The Salt Mines 1990
The Living End 1992
Poison 1991
J’ai Tué Ma Mere (I Killed My Mother) 2001
Weekend 2011
We Need to Talk About Kevin 2011
Wildness 2012
Tangerine 2015
Shakedown 2018

Born in Flames
Nearly four decades after its initial release, Born in Flames remains a timely reminder of the ongoing need to fight for equality and change. Ten years after the “Social Democratic War of Liberation” and set in a not-too-distant future New York City, Borden’s science fiction fantasy imagines a coalition of women crossing racial and class divides to rise up to fight for equality. Centred on two pirate radio stations ‘Radio Ragazza’ and ‘Phoenix Radio,’ a Women’s Army responds with action after world-traveling political activist Adelaide Norris is arrested and suspiciously dies in police custody. Through a Marxist lens Borden’s feminist reimagining of America complicates binaries of individualism and community. Queer time in Born in Flames relates to the temporality of revolutionary action and the necessity of community to create change.

Embodied Knowledge: Queensland Contemporary Art
‘Embodied Knowledge’ is a focused survey of new work by Queensland artists of commissioned and recent projects bringing to the fore the voices of women, people of colour and LGBTIQA+ artists. The exhibition reveals the current dynamic state of creativity in Queensland, with artists responding to the diverse personal, political and social experiences of our time.

Featured image: Promotional still from Born in Flames 1983