Honey in 1983's "Born in Flames."

Born in Flames September 24, 2020


Lizzie Borden




Adele Bertei

Kathryn Bigelow









1 Hr., 20 Mins.


orn in Flames (1983), Lizzie Borden’s searing, sci-fi-tinged faux documentary, is set sometime in an indefinite future — 10 years after a political revolution that led to the U.S.’s rebranding as a socialist democracy. But if the last decade in the film’s mirror-world has proven anything, it’s that this metamorphosis is predominantly in name only: the marginalized have not suddenly stopped being

marginalized; the ruling classes continue to rule.


The film, which centers around various women activists, is largely plotless. Born in Flames is a collage of a movie, compiling interactions between a disparate array of characters and imitation news footage. It's most concerned with a handful of women-led groups working in different ways to ultimately revolutionize what is purportedly a post-revolution society. Two of them disseminate their views via radio programs; another is a metropolitan activist sect called the Women’s Army. (One of the latter’s most ingenious tools is essentially a bike brigade, which, when deployed, entails members on bicycles coming to the rescue, like superheroes, whenever a woman is being attacked by a man in public.) Much of this is documented by three women editors at a socialist newspaper. One of them is played by future director Kathryn Bigelow, in her sole acting job.


Born in Flames is a propulsive movie — a flurry of provocative ideas and forward-thinking stylistic innovations. (It attempts to, and succeeds at, so many things that it reminds us of the limitations genre itself can bring.) Its final message, above all else, is that while there may be periods during which discussions of revolution are particularly in vogue, nothing can be accomplished concretely without direct action, without solitary and intersectionality undergirding efforts. It can’t be all rhetoric; it can’t just be protests. It’s a movie functioning as a sort of call to arms.


Born in Flames is often touted as a prescient product. I wonder if there will be a time where it might be more thoroughly viewed as dated. (The most aged aspect is, of course, the emphasis on radio and TV as the utmost forms of widespread dissemination.) Certainly looking at it with a special regard to its place in history doesn’t undermine its power. It won’t be lost on most viewers that the picture is additionally and tacitly warning of an eventual move to repopularized conservatism if widespread social change loses momentum too long. Sure enough, the U.S. was in the middle of Ronald Reagan’s, and then would veer into, George H.W. Bush’s presidency, right-wing ideology becoming progressively ubiquitous. 


Myriad elements of the film, sometimes functioning as satire and other times unfettered observation, echo continued frustrations and obstacles we see during particularly active waves of social change: the suspected murder of an imprisoned activist leader covered up by the government as suicide; the mainstream media’s way of frequently functioning as propaganda for harmful albeit normalized societal institutions; the tendency of activist groups perhaps unwittingly getting detrimentally caught up in their power dynamics. (Born in Flames seems a subtle rejoinder to the problematic, white-dominant, heteronormative trappings of the mainstream feminist movement of the decade prior.) The movie finally wonders: can violence really be the way to solidly kickstart a revolution?


It posits that one of the reasons the currently-in-place socialist democracy hasn’t exactly worked the way it was meant to is because it didn’t build from the ground up. It has merely cosmetically renovated the capitalistically driven systems that were already there. A title like Born in Flames has a duality to it. It signifies that once we are born, we are immediately subjected to whichever evils stem from the society under which we live. It also denotes that a revolution is perhaps only effective once the very thing being ostensibly dismantled is truly burnt to the ground. A society cannot efficiently be reborn like some sort of phoenix if troubles of the past remain there. 

orden shot the film in the course of five years, mostly guerilla-style, in New York City. She initially decided to make the movie after attending a Jean-Luc Godard retrospective. She was working as an arts journalist at the time, and, while she admired much of the work she was reporting on and critiquing, she noticed that they were often not very politically confrontational. The arts themeselves was also vexingly male-


dominated; she was astounded by the outputs of so many women artists but, unsurprisingly, it tended to go undervalued. After watching Godard movies like La Chinoise (1967) and Tout Va Bien (1972), Borden realized that it wasn’t necessarily unthinkable to make a politically pointed movie that was didactic but funny, brimming with ideas but clear about them, and still be accessible and entertaining. It wasn’t impossible to center women, either. 


When we hear dialogue in Born in Flames, much of it wasn’t written by Borden herself: it was often improvised by these women serving as her actresses, many of whom were themselves activists at the time. Borden said in a recent interview that this decision was made mostly out of a fear of not wanting to impose her own ideologies onto someone else, or, worse, try to assume another's and then have them speak from a false notion of their lived experience rather than their own lived experience. She’d just rather hear from the person directly. Such is a choice — in no doubt a risky one — that ultimately fosters part of what makes the movie so exciting to watch. Not only are the perspectives disparate, but they also double down on Borden’s overarching intersectional rhapsodies as a crucial part of a revolution. We need all kinds of voices to be in conversation with each other; how will they mesh to push forward change? Born in Flames galvanizes — reminds us that simply believing in something like a revolution is never enough. A