Movie Spotlight: Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983)

Lizzie Borden, a New York filmmaker, visited Toronto in September 1986 when her film, Working Girls, an empathetic portrayal of prostitution as an economic choice, premiered at the annual Festival of Festivals. Working Girls is Lizzie Borden’s second full-length feature movie. Her first film, Born in Flames, depicts a futuristic scenario where a variety of feminist groups, from underground radio stations to anti-rape squads, to a Women’s Army, attempt to revolutionize society along radical feminist lines. KIO collective members, Alexandra Devon and Catherine Tammaro, interviewed Lizzie Borden during her stay in Toronto.

Lizzie Borden has adopted a strong anti-censorship stance which is critical of the anti-pornography movement. Her position illustrates the divisions in the feminist movement in response to both the negative images of women conveyed by mainstream pornography and the overwhelming ability of the state to silence artistic expression. The KIO collective, while abhorring government interference in any area of life, including censorship, also acknowledges many of the arguments and analysis put forward by the anti-pornography movement. The goal should be not to enhance differences by siding with any particular “camp”, but to find ways of dealing with and eradicating misogyny, in any form, while rejecting censorship so that we may be free to create our own images as feminist filmmakers such as Lizzie Borden have begun to do.

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AD:    How did you become a feminist?

LB:    Around 1972, I got really interested in what could be said to be the beginnings of radical feminism. It just brought everything together for me. Somehow the whole Vietnam thing was so male oriented, and a lot of the issues were about men. The women’s movement brought things together in such a vital way that I was able to start to see parallels in almost every other political situation, from antiwar movements to libertarian struggles in other countries, all of that, but through the viewpoint of feminism.

At that point I was a painter and an art critic, when I first came to New York, and then realized that I didn’t like the visual and the verbal so separated. I was really jealous of people making films. I would see people making films, like Goddard, and think, “I’m really jealous of this.” So then I thought, “OK, I should be making films if I’m responding this way.” So I taught myself everything. I just decided that I’d had too much of school – school had destroyed art for me, really. I knew too much about it. I didn’t want to learn anything about film other than what I needed to know – to shoot, do sound and edit. I loved editing, it’s so much like writing, and I became good at it so that I was able to support myself as a film editor – usually small films and documentaries.

Making a film was a way to get involved politically. I never was involved in consciousness-raising groups. Somehow making a film itself was a political process for me. Born In Flames came out of a lot of the inequalities I saw when I came to New York. Also, the alternative movements – the gay movement, the women’s movement – were very divided and reproduced the divisions of the dominant culture. For example, Black women were still very isolated from white women, who were very isolated from Latin and Asian women, who were invisible. So that was one of the things I was interested in doing Born In Flames about. I began to be involved with Black women for the purpose of making the film. I wanted to construct a paradigm that I didn’t see happening in the culture. For me, film is a political exploration. I’m totally not involved politically except in so far as I make films. I mean I don’t go to meetings. I don’t go to anything! But the films are a way to have a reason to be involved. The film about prostitution is the same thing. That, as opposed to being overtly political, it is, in fact, still a very political film because it is asserting a position. Every time you assert a position it has to be somehow standing against some dominant position you see or somehow trying to present another way in. I don’t know why, I think I felt that I could be more influential or helpful or make a stronger statement by making a film. I’m really bad at meetings, I’m bad at panels, my brain stops working. Although I sign petitions, I may have gone to maybe one march in my life. Sometimes I feel guilty, I go “maybe I’m not politically involved enough”. But making films is all about exploring an issue that I find absolutely fascinating and difficult That’s my way to motivate myself, to start to do research and explore it, and I put myself totally within it. In Born In Flames I was totally within the framework of what it’s about. The women involved in it were who they really were. By doing the film I learned a lot. I always want to do a film about something I know nothing about and use that process to educate myself. So that to me is my main reason.

Catherine Tammaro: I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about your visual concerns in the film Born In Flames. I’m a painter myself, and you mentioned that you started out as a painter and then gave it up to make film. What were your visual concerns in that film, and do you feel that they were well carried through or well represented? Were you perhaps making a political statement on the visual sparseness of the film?

LB:    Born In Flames was a response to having very little money. The film was done for no more than $40,000 and no less than $30,000 over a period of four or five years. I couldn’t pay people very much, and I had to do it over a long period of time, so my aesthetic had to be about grabbing images, and getting them without worrying about a well-defined aesthetic which would combine everything. Starting from an aesthetic of “cheapness” I then had to develop a kind of visual aesthetic which I decided was going to be montage. I decided that I would not worry about what each individual looked like, but really try to create an energy about the juxtaposition of images. I couldn’t worry that people gained and lost twenty pounds from one six month period to another, or that they shaved their heads or did strange things. I had to somehow manage to bind together a lot of images without having people worry too much about that. The structure of it also reproduced a lot of political ideas that were at the bottom of Born In Flames. I couldn’t have an aesthetic unity based on consistent lighting, continuity and all of that because that wasn’t what the film was about.

It was so much about discontinuity and dysfunction. It was about different groups somehow coming together and the explosion of when that happened. I thought much more about diagonals, as opposed to horizontals or verticals or anything that would lead to continuity of visual experience.

You try to make virtues out of your problems, and with Born In Flames I really tried to do that. It would have been impossible otherwise, because so much of the film was constructed in the editing. I would get a piece of something where there was no script to start with. So much of it was trying to be open to what the ideas of these women I was working with.

In Working Girls I had to have a completely different visual aesthetic. I had $100,000 for production, and that in itself is not very much. But when I decided I was going to make the film all take place in one day I knew that I had to have a very good looking image that was very controlled, otherwise people would get tired of looking at it. I couldn’t use any kind of wild editing really. It actually surprises me sometimes because people say “Oh my god, Working Girls doesn’t look anything like Born In Flames, like shock.” But each idea has its own needs. Wild shooting would have been too subjective. Born In Flames is all about subjectivity, really. With Born In Flames, what seemed to me interesting was to try to get something very raw whether or not people really believed in it as actors or not. They were never intended to be actors. But they were almost playing out their fantasies of the characters, somewhere between who they were and who they fantasized themselves as being. In Working Girls it was strictly actors. I was really lucky to get Louise Smith who played the lead role of Molly because she had to do a lot of very hard work. In fact we did a week and a half of bedroom scenes and she really felt like a hooker. By the end she did everything. She is a nice Catholic girl who’d never been in a film and had never taken her clothes off before. But she was so willing to stretch herself to the experience. What was interesting to me in dealing with actors was overcoming their prejudices of what “working” girls were. They came to rehearsals in stilettos and I made them all go to the real place that the film was based on and apply for a job so they could see what the girls who really worked there looked like, what the Madam was like, and they changed their opinion.

The reason I didn’t want to do a documentary was that I felt that I would deal with a lot of restrictions, and I also wanted to go into the bedroom and demystify the sex that happens in that prostitute/”John” relationship – I couldn’t have done that in a documentary. I did a lot of research and forged ahead. A friend of mine worked in a particular brothel on 24th Street and I went in there with a tape recorder and took notes, and met women and even clients. They weren’t defensive since I wasn’t going to use them – their images. I was going to base characters on them and then spend a lot of time writing the script.

AD: I’ve heard in number of articles you described as an anarcha-feminist. Are you in fact an anarcha-feminist? Is this a label people have put on you? Are you comfortable with it?

LB: I’m comfortable with it by process of elimination because I never quite figured out what it is, but I feel closer to it than any other political identification. I’m so critical of any kind of organized left wing just because of bureaucracy really becoming another class, and the relationship of women to whatever organized left there is. So, the idea of anarchism has always appealed to me simply because it’s always calling into question that which is. I somehow see anarchism as that. I see it as not necessarily excluding different political identifications. For example, on one issue it might be possible to side with a socialist stance, on another issue a very Western stance. But the thing about anarchism is that it allows you not to have to be over-programmed. The other thing is about feminists. What gets me now is people saying that they’re not feminist anymore. Feminism is such a mild word for how I consider myself, that I’m absolutely a feminist. Anarcha-feminism to me has always been about stirring things up. You try to constantly ask those questions which will prevent stasis from setting in. Even at the expense of sometimes being seen as contradictory or saying things that go against what you said a year before or a minute before. For me it’s a process. We all know what’s wrong with Western capitalism and we all know what’s wrong with the extreme left, so anarcha-feminism – it just seems to be the only viable identification, if one is to identify at all.

AD: Would you tell us some of the problems you’ve had with your films getting censored.

LB: When Born In Flames came out I went through this big thing with the [Ontario] Censor Board. The same thing occurred with my “dick shots” in Working Girls. This year it’s been pretty outrageous because the film was appealed, then they decided I had to make one cut. Since I had to make that cut for American distribution, I said alright. As it turns out, I just put tape over that scene. But in a way the controversy about the censorship of my film made it possible for the Andy Warhol film, which has twenty-eight minutes of a blow job, to just breeze right through. That I resent tremendously.

But the irony is that censorship by the economic market is just as strong. No distributor is going to take my film unless I cut that scene out. They say, “Fine, you can have that shot in your film but we’re just not going to distribute it.” And if it doesn’t get distributed it doesn’t get seen. So, in fact, that’s a form of censorship as well. I feel that a lot of feminist issues get cut down in the market place. It’s fine to deal with certain issues and people say, “Sure, go right ahead.” But it’s harder to get grants, it’s harder to get the film seen and you get torn apart totally. It’s something which I feel is highly contradictory and does end up being a form of censorship. Here in Canada at least it’s overt, you know what you’re fighting against, which is the only advantage. Still it’s hard because it means nobody can see things.
In the US, there is at least a chance, you know what the situation is. You can always put something up and have some people come to see it.

AD: What were you trying to say about feminism in Born in Flames?

LB: One of the points of Born In Flames was about “feminisms” – the plural rather than the singular. That’s been the problem of some political movements and feminism too – the idea that you have to codify a platform. There are a million feminisms, there are a million types of different women who consider themselves feminists but don’t have the same agenda. The idea of plurality as opposed to democracy is something that is really, really difficult. Especially where there’s this myth in America, and probably in Canada too, of the melting pot. To melt together, to become uniform, to agree on a platform. It will never exist and there’s no reason to have it exist. In fact, one of the issues, in terms of race, is how do you allow, encourage, appreciate racial autonomy with all of its distinctions, and at the same time not discriminate because of all those things? How do you allow people to not feel that they have to conform to a white feminist program? One of the things about Born In Flames was that each of the different sub groups, the Black underground radio station, the white underground radio station worked together without losing their autonomy. For me it seems really important to make those links. That was also a response to a lot of NOW [the National Organization for Women] platforms. NOW was afraid to have lesbians work with them. They were afraid to have this group and that group because of one national image that they were promoting, which I thought was highly damaging and still is.

Now all of a sudden everything has wound up in the women against pornography movement, at least until a few years ago. It ends up being an issue that people have to feel one way on. Then there’s a lot of hatred against the women who try to have another viewpoint. So that the Andrea Dworkin types are totally against the women who are saying, “Hey look we don’t want to be censored.” Then there’s the women who are much more exploratory in terms of sexual practice. It ends up tearing everything apart – which is great – the media loves it! It allows potent movements to be so diffused that nothing can happen. That’s scary!


Read the full 1987 interview transcript here.