We are Born in Flames: An Interview with Lizzie Borden

Lizzie Borden’s incendiary work of feminist provocation and grungy, science-fiction futurism is charged with the energy of revolution
Sophia Satchell-Baeza

Lizzie Borden's Born in Flames (1983) is exclusively showing on MUBI in several countries in the series Rediscovered. This interview took place on May 17, 2021 via Zoom in connection to the MUBI premiere.

Into the darkness of the past
We’ve thrown the shamans of the ruling class
The struggle of the exploitеd mass
Has broken the oppressors’ lash
Wе are born in flames.

—Red Krayola, “Born in Flames”

Honey speaking at the pirate radio station Phoenix Radio in Born in Flames.

NOTEBOOK: There’s an early scene in Born in Flames of what looks like a consciousness-raising group: women sharing their personal experiences of oppression in a collective setting. How much of the film’s themes came about through group discussions, like the ones in your first film Regrouping (1976)? Or did you approach the film with pre-arranged ideas? 

LIZZIE BORDEN: Born in Flames was actually a reaction against Regrouping (1976). The original women I started making that film with didn't like how I was portraying them and, on my part, I felt excluded from their discussion group. We were all part of the downtown art world, which was mostly white and middle-class. After I was done, they picketed the film and I put it away for many years. With Born In Flames I wanted to find a way to communicate and be more inclusive with more voices and dialogue among women, even if they had differing positions.  

An “induction meeting” for the Women’s Army in Born in Flames

I began with those who went on to play the women from the Socialist Youth Review because I was already friends with them: Kathryn Bigelow, Becky Johnston, and Pat Murphy (the director of Maeve [1981] and a couple of other great Irish films). I was already friends with the punk musician Adele Bertei, who had been in some downtown films. But I knew I needed other voices in the film, Black voices, and I didn’t know any Black women downtown. The word “feminism” was suspect among some Black women at that time, who preferred “womanism.” I told them we could talk instead about what we all want as women. I asked Black women from various parts of the city if they would come to these first groups, which were structured like consciousness-raising groups, to discuss the issues that everyone cared about—women’s safety on the streets, economic equality in the workplace, etc. Some of the women in these first meetings didn’t stay the course of the film so I had to cast it with women who would, and I had no idea how long the process would take!  

I eventually met Jeanne Satterfield, who plays Adelelaide Norris, at a YMCA, where I used to see her playing basketball. I met Honey through a woman I got to know at a lesbian bar. When I visited her at her Lower East Side apartment, I met  Honey, who called herself a “singing evangelist.” She was interested in the film even though she had never been in one before. 

NOTEBOOK: The cast involved a lot of nonprofessional actors. Did you have any previous models for working in this way? And how did you go about making the film?

BORDEN: It took a long time to assemble the women who committed and work with them in developing their “voices” for the film and styles in front of the camera. Adele wrote her own material for the most part; Honey rhymed everything; Flo Kennedy, of course, had her own unique take on everything. The Socialist News Editors performed a  kind of a “take-off” on what the “Party” women would say and they, too, contributed their own ideas. I wanted the film to simultaneously express a multiplicity of points of view. 

Honey in Born in Flames.

I didn’t have a story in the traditional sense until maybe the second year of filming. Then some elements started coming together. For example, a guy came to me with the footage of Algerian women fighting for territory in the Western Sahara, and I established the plot of a woman murdered in jail. Flo Kennedy added ideas—her character having made contact with them in the past; the Women’s Army taking over the media; the idea of the President offering Wages For Housework. I added other pieces I’d already filmed, then wrote the news reporters’ speeches, then shot scenes like the women stealing the U-Haul trucks. It was Adele’s idea to have the two underground radio stations “on the move.”  

I edited all day, every day, and owned the means of production: a camera and a Nagra tape recorder. I had rented an editing table I rented out all the time for very little money. Anytime I had $200, I  was able to shoot something. It took me forever to find somebody who would create the special effect for the ending with the World Trade Center Transmission Tower blowing up. Had I gone to film school, I would never have embarked on making a film this way because they would have said I was crazy. 

NOTEBOOK: The film portrays diverse feminist social movements, which rely on different tactics and don’t always see eye to eye. I love how refreshingly honest this is. It doesn’t seem to be suggesting that these differences need to be met for there to be successful collective action. Was this your thinking at the time? Is this still your thinking?

BORDEN: What I wanted to create in Born in Flames was a kind of fantasy about how various people could come together across race and class lines. That’s why I call the film “science fiction.” I don’t know that it is always really possible to do this. The bicycle brigade scene is an example of this: women of all races and ages come together in unison to help a Latina being assaulted. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? 

Intertitle from Born in Flames  

Since Black Lives Matter, it seems that there’s more dialogue across race and class lines. There are some white women shutting up and listening, which is fine with me. These may be steps in the right direction, but it’s going to take a long time to accomplish systemic change. That’s why I set Born in Flames 10 years in the future. It was also because I’d been reading Marxist and socialist texts which were always talking about “the woman question,” as if a government would deal with women secondarily. I wanted to posit a time period where women were now demanding the change they were promised. Since I didn't alter the way New York looked, it feels “dystopian” since the city has been cleaned up post-Giuliani. Setting it in the future was also a way of suggesting that change has to keep happening. 

NOTEBOOK: Did you anticipate the film becoming a time capsule of the Lower East Side and downtown, a quintessential New York City film? Is there anything about this vision of the city that you miss?

BORDEN: You know what I miss the most? The World Trade Center.  It was the building we loved to hate because they were two phallic towers in the middle of nothing. What were they doing there? But over time, they became icons.  I don’t miss the garbage and the rats. During that time, the city was actually falling apart. 

Graffiti street scene in Born in Flames

NOTEBOOK: I read somewhere that you were planning on calling the film Les Guérillères after Monique Wittig’s legendary lesbian epic from 1969. What impact did this book have on the film, and maybe even your wider circles? I’m thinking here of Vivienne Dick’s short film Guerillere Talks (1979), which also stars Pat Place and Adele Bertei? And by extension, what was your relationship with the No Wave film scene?

BORDEN: Vivienne Dick called her film Guerrillere Talks, so I wanted to use a different title. Also I thought everyone would call it “The Gorillas.” I asked Mayo Thompson of Red Krayola and the [conceptual art] group Art & Language, to write a song for the film. He came up with the song “Born in Flames.” I loved that title so much I used it for the title of the film. 

Pat Place in Vivienne Dick’s Guerillere Talks (1978)

I’m often put in the recent “No Wave” grouping (it wasn’t always called that) because I was there at the time. Some of the actors in Born In Flames—Adele Bertei and Ron Vawter from The Wooster Group—appear in No Wave films. We also shared resources. Some No Wave filmmakers helped me shoot Born In Flames when I needed a camera person, along with women like Chris Hegedus and Johanna Heer. We had mutual friends, like Nan Goldin, who did the still photos for Working Girls; we all went to see Cookie Mueller dance; we went to the same clubs, like the Mudd Club and CBGBs: It was a community. We all used downtown and the Lower East Side as our free backdrops. It was “the Wild West” for us. Many filmmakers—except for Vivienne Dick, Sheila McLaughlin, Bette Gordon and Pat Murphy, for example—were influenced by the French New Wave, so their films were straight, didn’t have people of color, and weren’t political. This time and place no longer exists: we could make films for no money because no one was paying attention to us.

NOTEBOOK: I’m interested in what the film has to say about generational collaboration between different “moments” of activism. How much was this film in conversation with 60s radicalism or were you reacting against this?

BORDEN: One of the reasons we were so thrilled to have Flo Kennedy in this film was so we could have an example of her earlier form of activism; one that didn’t reference the chauvinism of the Black Panthers. But when Born in Flames was first released, we were accused by some critics of recycling a ‘60s Panthers rhetoric. It’s the reason the Combahee River Collective came into being: to articulate a middle lane between the Panthers and white feminists. 

Lawyer and civil rights activist Flo Kennedy

In Born In Flames, it was important to show different and simultaneous lanes. Each woman—Honey, Jeanne Satterfield, Adele—has their own voice, their own tactics. Working with Flo was so important because, while she had been a civil rights activist, she had fought for sex workers, on choice and other issues about which male civil rights activists were not always supportive. 

Cinema of Women poster for Born in Flames

NOTEBOOK: It’s almost a cliche to say that this film is prescient from the final scene of the destruction of the World Trade Center to the way in which the murder of a Black women acts as the “fuse that ignites the whole bomb.” Watching it again recently I was even struck by how the bombing of the underground radio station mirrors the recent Israeli state bombing of Al Jazeera media headquarters. It feels like this film is doomed to continuous cycles of prescience. Is there hope for a future out of the rubble?

BORDEN: I did not expect Born in Flames to be relevant today. I thought that those women’s issues expressed in the film would be resolved. But that’s clearly still not the case. They are ongoing and in some cases, it’s worse.  

Born in Flames was meant to present a series of questions about how a radical group induces change. Do you hand out flyers, do you strike, do you convince people to listen to you? And at what point do you pick up arms? I wanted to question whether this approach would work in a capitalist country like the United States. I borrowed a lot of images from The Battle of Algiers [Gillo Pontecorvo, 1967.] This kind of revolution can work in a country like Algiers but it does not here. I wanted people to think about what would happen after the last shot of Born in Flames: the women being rounded up, tortured, beaten up, punished. 

Often people say the violence in the film can’t work, and in that case, they’re right. But how else is systemic change possible? During the Derek Chauvin trial for the murder of George Floyd, there were more killings of POC the same day, in the same place. And we’re going “How, why!?!” 

People often ask me whether you could make Born in Flames again, and I say no. First of all, calls to action are being made all the time now. Women of color are making films that articulate their voices and points of view every day. I’m interested in hearing what’s said from all these perspectives. When I decided to make this film, I wasn’t seeing this perspective that often. A film like Born in Flames would not need to be made today because any woman with an iPhone can make it in 30 seconds. Every woman has a weapon now with her phone. A woman in the backseat of a car can film her significant other being murdered by a cop and put it online. She is making a political film. She’s having her voice heard in the space of 30 seconds. 

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