Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames is the classic science fiction film you might have never seen. The amazing socio-political science fiction film you’ve been waiting for? Was made in 1983.
I was made aware of Born in Flames years ago in a Lesbian/Queer Representation in Media class. It’s a mockumentary but I hate that term for films like this, mockumentary implies comedy and films like Born in Flames and Watermelon Woman may have funny parts but they are not comedies. There’s probably a term for a film that uses the documentary style not for mockery I’ve yet to learn.
The movie starts with a science-fictional (and really the only bit of science fiction in the film but a very important bit) premise – we are ten years past a socialist-democrat revolution and everything is equal. Except not really. Misogyny is still tolerated, as is racism and classism and all the other -isms. The revolution is slowly becoming like the old regime and serving some citizens more than others. Then things begin to get even worse.
The film refuses to be summarized simply, it has documentary portions and portions that are much more like narrative film. There is no main protagonist, there are instead many different women who share their positions. There are the two different radical underground radio stations – Radio Ragazza & Phoenix Radio – run by Isabel & Honey respectively who share some ideals but have very different focuses and perspectives. Then there’s Adelaide Norris and the other leaders of The Women’s Army and the three white women who run the Socialist Review (one played by a very young Kathryn Bigelow) and the older activist Zella Wylie (played by actual activist Flo Kennedy). All of them sharing their experiences and opinions of the state of the the new socialist-democratic republic. As the cracks begin to widen, we see them take different positions and different actions in reaction. Many storylines parallel journeys of actual civil rights leaders in the 50s, 60s & 70s. In many ways the protagonist of the film? Is the collective women as a force. Men are negligible in this film, the only ones who really appear are on the side of evil (read the interview link down below for more info on why Lizzie Borden did this, also on how there was actually very little script.)
Like any good documentary many points of views are represented and you as the viewer are allowed to interpret and understand along with the characters. I also hesitate about not calling this a real documentary, because though the story may be untrue the emotions and factions and beliefs are not. The divisions in feminism that Lizzie Borden explores in the film? Are the very divisions we still talk about today. The hypocrisy she calls out in many of the leading figures in the government are still visible in our elected leaders.
The things The Women’s Army fights for, are not things that are made-up or imaginary goals – an end to misogyny, sexual assault, racism, heterosexism, classism. Lizzie Borden does not leave any of these isms to languish and through the format is able to show us how they interweave and inform each other and how even some activists can be blind to them. The themes and story that Born in Flames tells includes many things we are dealing with today: equal treatment under the law, anti-police brutality, the inequity of the justice system, an end to the biases that have tainted this country for centuries. It will make you sad for the fact that we still deal with these so much and hopeful that such powerful art was being made about it even 33 years ago.
Some enterprising and blessed soul has uploaded the entire film to Youtube. Watch it below. It’s worth it.
In my search for Born in Flames images online I found a few other people writing really smart things about this film. I will say that I have tried my best to avoid spoilers in the above but some of these pieces assume you have already seen the film, proceed at your own risk.
“BORN IN FLAMES,” LIZZIE BORDEN’S 1983 FANTASY OF RADICAL FEMINIST REVOLUTION by Sophie Weiner in ANIMAL
The Feminisms of ‘Born in Flames’ by Heather Brown in BITCH FLICKS
We Still Need the Women’s Army: Form and Politics in Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames by Brent Bellamy in CLEO: A JOURNAL OF FILM AND FEMINISM
And a WONDERFUL interview of the filmmaker Lizzie Borden (yes, that’s her real name) by Betty Sussler in Bomb Magazine in 1983 right after the film’s release.