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'Born in Flames': An Intersectional Revolution from the '80s Underground

Lizzie Borden’s 1983 film Born In Flames may be off-putting to some viewers. Its non-narrative structure can be confusing, the cast of non-actors sometimes struggles to be believable, and the handheld camera is inconsistent. However, I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone, for it is bold, it is artistic. and it is unapologetically feminist.

What makes the film work is the sincerity of its unique perspective, and how the DIY-feel of the production pairs nicely with its underground, guerilla warfare themes. This is not a film where a corporate entity appropriates the aesthetics of the underground for profit. Born in Flames was patchworked together with little budget and volunteered, improvisational performances from an eclectic cast. While the result may seem uneven on some technical levels, it shines in its intensity.

The movie imagines a future wherein the USA has gone through a peaceful socialist revolution, and follows several women who are struggling in this new America. The movie has been labeled as science fiction, but it would be more accurate to describe it as alternate history or speculative fiction. There is no futuristic tech or supernatural elements. Although the movie could be considered dystopian, the characters complain more about how things haven’t changed since the revolution, implying that the America of the ‘80s is still largely intact. The movie was filmed on location in New York, with props and logos from fictional parties being the only main visual difference from reality.

In addition to being mismarketed as sci-fi, the film is also sometimes labeled an LGBTQ+ film. While this label is not inaccurate either (the film does feature queer characters), it should be noted that the film does not spend time on any queer romance, nor does it deal with specific queer issues. There is a quick shot of women being intimate, but the film can only cover so much in 80 minutes.

The film is told through many different segments, including the meetings and direct action taken by members of a guerilla political group called the “Women’s Army”; clips from state-run news stations; segments from two DJs for underground feminist radio stations; and a subplot involving female journalists at the Socialist Youth Review and their male supervisor. 

None of the characters are strongly developed, but this isn’t that kind of film. Borden cited Jean-Luc Godard as one of her main inspirations, and that inspiration is evident in the politically-charged mouthpieces that the movie non-narratively floats among. The effectiveness and artistic merit of being so didactic can be debated, but Born in Flames never manages to feel boring or unoriginal in the presentation of its ideas, and it never comes across as omnipotent. It serves more as a call to action in the name of feminist intersectionality than a smug vessel of alternative stylings. 

Borden's movie holds a mirror to the world and is, in many ways, a highly relevant examination of leftist desires. It questions whether democratic socialism would solve as many problems as its proponents argue, and if constant calls for solidarity and togetherness may inadvertently mask the silencing of disenfranchised voices. Even so, it intensely criticizes the oppression under capitalism in the ‘80s and that which persists today along the lines of gender, race, and class. 

Born in Flames is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.



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