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Born in Flames poster

The 80s feminist sci-fi that predicted Trump-era oppression

Lizzie Borden talks us through her movie Born In Flames, a tale of pirate radio crews radicalised by a woman’s death

When Lizzie Borden, a 20-something art-school graduate named after an alleged axe murderer, set out to make her searing sci-fi polemic Born in Flames, she had no idea the America she’d end up living in would, in some ways, be even more backwards than the one she envisioned.

“It’s a world of contradiction now,” says the director about life under Trump, ahead of the film’s screening at Edinburgh Film Festival tomorrow (July 1). “You have shows like Transparent defining the idea of gender in such a radical way, yet at the same time men who are well into their 70s don’t even know how female anatomy works, let alone trans anatomy.”

Borden’s film, released in 1983, is a rudely stitched vision of a post-revolutionary America of the future, and follows a pair of pirate radio crews radicalised by the death of a women’s rights activist in police custody. Shunning the bourgeois entitlement of second-wave feminism, the young director set about finding a bisexual, multi-racial cast of non-professional actors for the feature, which makes great use of a moody no-wave soundtrack and 80s NY’s mean streets to suggest a world of simmering discontent.

We spoke to Borden about her experiences making the film, which continues to spark debate across the world.


Lizzie Borden: The film was received well in feminist circles at the time, but it was attacked by the New York Times because it had gotten a grant and under the Republican regime it just wasn’t the thing people wanted their grant money going on, because it just seemed so rough-edged. People weren’t used to it. it was so rag-tag, and the women in it were lesbians and black women, it didn’t have locked-down cameras and beautifully considered shots.


Lizzie Borden: There really was no integrated society back then in the art world – this was pre-Basquiat, when there were maybe three black artists, who I never saw (exhibited), and there was such a disparity between men and women’s art. Women’s art was not valued as highly – Joan Jonas and Yvonne Rainer were doing pieces where they used their bodies, which was seen as narcissistic, but their work was brilliant.

As a white, middle-class woman I felt that I couldn’t put words in the mouth of black women. I was rebelling against what I felt was the dominant feminism at the time which was represented by Ms. magazine, which was sort of defining what second-wave feminism was. I think (legendary feminist and former Ms. Editor) Gloria Steinem is amazing, she’s done so much with her support of so many women’s issues, but at that point Ms. Magazine felt very bourgeois to me. I didn’t really know any black women and I felt that in some ways the black women I’d read about didn’t even approve of the word feminism, so I thought, ‘Well, how can I write a script for a film when I don’t even know what black women feel or think?’

“I wanted to find women who I thought would be on the edge of revolution, if there was a revolution. I asked what it would take, after a hypothetical so-called socialist revolution, to get to the point where you would have to pick up arms.” – Lizzie Borden


Lizzie Borden: I wanted to create a film of many voices – not just one dominant voice. I’d come to the conclusion that there was no singular voice in feminism, which I actually believe today. The only way for women to work together is side by side not to try to work as one unified group. Flo Kennedy (feminist activist who appears in the film) sort of became the elder statesman on the project. She has this line: ‘Which would you rather comes through the door, one lion unified or 500 mice? Five hundred mice can do a lot of damage and destruction.’ Which is so wise, because it’s true – it’s about attacking in a lot of directions, because one lion can be destroyed with one shot.

My idea was, ‘Who would be the women most affected by these changes (to society after the revolution)?’ Not the white women, who were represented by the three white women in the film, including Kathryn Bigelow as a news editor. It would be black women, the disenfranchised, lesbians who were not seen as the norm at that point. And I didn’t know that many women who were in that group so I had to go find them. I started group meetings with women and asked them, ‘What are the issues that are important to you? Is it rape, is it trafficking, is it wages?’ It’s shocking to think many of those issues are still unresolved nearly 35 years later. But anyway, what happened was it took a really long time shooting, (because) I would only film when I had a couple of hundred dollars to do a scene. Here and there I would get a grant,until finally it gelled. But it took the length of time it took for me to end up with a storyline, because it came out of the characters. I needed it to be authentic to the women because often they were playing someone very close to themselves. It had to express their own take.


Lizzie Borden: For me one of the important things is the Q&As I get to do after showing the film (at festivals), because it shows me what people, particularly millennials, are thinking. I wonder why are they interested in the film, and they’re strangely enough identifying with it. I was in Korea a few weeks ago, and young women were coming up to me saying, ‘We love our president but he is anti-gay rights and anti-abortion, what do we do? We’re not allowed in America to speak out about this, what should we do?’ So it’s interesting to me the issues millennials have, it’s like a village square Q&A with the film being able to provoke questions.


Lizzie Borden: I wanted to find women who I thought would be on the edge of revolution, if there was a revolution. I asked what it would take, after a hypothetical so-called socialist revolution, to get to the point where you would have to pick up arms. That’s a question for right now too, though my answer now would be no, you couldn’t do that, you would be slaughtered. We would have to go deep underground to fight this monstrous situation. It’s been interesting how the film has bizarrely mapped the current climate in politics. When I made it Reagan was president and some of the same conditions prevailed. I had no idea that there could be a worse president, someone as lunatic as Donald Trump. It’s a world of contradiction (right now), because you have shows like Transparent defining the idea of gender in such a radical way while at the same time men who are well into their 70s don’t even know how female anatomy works, let alone trans anatomy. You know some of them even think when a woman is raped their bodies will automatically reject the sperm? Like, hello, where on earth do they get these ideas? And the whole locker-room thing was never questioned after Trump got off that bus (where his infamous ‘grab them by the pussy’ remarks were recorded), he just said ‘boys will be boys’. Locker-room talk is the breeding ground for rape culture. That still exists everywhere.


Lizzie Borden: Born in Flames wouldn’t exist today – the equivalent is being made every second now with iPhones. The idea of taking five years to make a film and then show it in an old-fashioned form like cinema is so outmoded now – quaint, almost. Because with every new edict by this psychopath (Trump) we have over here, there are people posting to the internet. And people are doing really creative stuff, whether it’s through animation, short films, documentaries or agit-prop. I think that’s why the tabloids are failing, because there’s stuff that’s more immediate. People are able to use these new tools for editing, they understand film language in a totally different way.

I actually read an article yesterday saying that girls today have fewer rights on paper than their grandmothers. That disparity will politicise them, create stronger women more ready to fight. Whether or not they call it feminism, the word itself doesn’t matter. Let’s create a new word that people are happier with. I don’t think you hold on to a word just for the sake of a word. But I think the most galvanising moment for me last year was after all the marches, half a million women on the streets (in Washington DC), Donald Trump and a tableau of men signed into law that thing doing away with all the help they gave to women around the world (Trump signed an executive order pulling funding to overseas organisations offering abortions in 2016). (That photo) was like an autopsy painting or something. Very depressing. And I think that will stick for young women, whether they define themselves as feminists or not.