Creating Sparks: Five Questions with Lizzie Borden

The groundbreaking director of Born In Flames” will be in conversation at SAAM March 7

Still from Lizzie Borden's Born in Flames

Still from Lizzie Borden's Born in Flames, 1983. Copyright Lizzie Borden.

This is a photograph of curator Saisha Grayson
Saisha Grayson
Curator of Time-Based Media
March 4, 2020

At age eleven, filmmaker Lizzie Borden let her parents know that she’d be changing her name to match that of the nineteenth century axe murderer. This rebellious streak stayed strong, and since her arrival in New York as an aspiring artist in the 1970s, she has been smashing the patriarchy with films as unapologetic as her chosen name. Her debut documentary, Regrouping (1976) explored the fracturing of a women’s rights group, and in 1987, Working Girls (1986), her narrative on women choosing brothel work won the Sundance Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize in drama. She is best known however for her first feature Born In Flames (1983), which we will screen on Saturday, March 7, as part of the Women Filmmakers Festival at SAAM. Borden will be traveling from L.A. for a post-screening conversation with Saisha Grayson, SAAM’s curator of time-based media at the Festival; here they warm up with a few questions for Eye Level.

What were some of the experiences or observations, the sparks if you will, that inspired you to make Born In Flames?

Painting and writing about art in downtown New York art world in the late 70s, I saw how female artists were treated as “lesser” by the art establishment—especially cutting-edge performance artists like Joan Jonas, Carolee Schneemann, and Hannah Wilke. Even women whose work was more traditional weren’t as respected. As I became radicalized by the “second-and-a-half” wave of feminism, I was distressed by the non-diversity of the art scene. I saw a retrospective of Jean-Luc Godard films and realized that film could be both narrative and agit-prop. Born In Flames emerged from this, a desire to include non-downtown voices, using fictional, documentary and experimental techniques. It started with a question: what would happen ten years after a social-democratic cultural revolution if women, especially black women, were still treated as second-class citizens?

There are clear feminist intentions and concerns inherent in the film’s subject, but that doesn’t lead to one ideological solution or easy path to resolution. That strikes me as in itself very feminist. Can you share how your radicalization, as you put it, impacted your approach to making this film?

Since many black women didn’t like the word “feminism,” some preferring “womanism,” I decided not to use the word often in the film. I wanted to explore ideas the majority of women wanted to fight for—equal rights, freedom of choice, combating rape, equal pay, etc. I wanted the major characters in the film to express everything in their own words. The word “intersectional” wasn’t coined until 1992, almost ten years after Born In Flames came out, but I wanted the film to address race, class, and gender. But the film is strongly feminist and I was—and am—a proud feminist.

Knowing you trained as painter, can you talk about the how the New York creative scene of the time, which merged art, music, performance and nightlife, also critically shaped this film?

It was only because I was part of a vital and downtown community of art, theater, music, and film that Born In Flames was possible. For example, the women who played the newspaper editors, including Kathryn Bigelow, were all friends from the art scene. Adele, who plays Isabelle from Radio Regazza, was a musician from the punk scene. Eric Bogosian made his first film appearance in Born In Flames, as did Mark Boone, Jr. Ron Vawter, who played an FBI agent, was part of the downtown Wooster Theater Group. DeeDee Halleck, Ed Bowes, and several others who worked in downtown video spaces, had access to equipment and helped shoot at a moment’s notice. I could only shoot for a day when I had $200. “Downtown“ itself was a character. We used streets as stage sets. Those were the days when the tip of Manhattan was a beach. Artists were the original gentrifiers but it was still undeveloped. Now it’s Disneyland.

What was the reaction at the time, and what has the reaction been since the 35th Anniversary remastered edition prompted another round of focused attention?

Born In Flames premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 1983, but was criticized in the New York Times by a horrified critic for having received a small federal grant along the way. Some downtown critics slammed it as advocating a return to Black Panther-like violence. It wasn’t—the film asked the question if and when violence might be necessary and only against property (as exemplified by targeting the transmission towers of the World Trade Center). It is a strange coincidence that the 35mm restoration of Born In Flames by Anthology Film Archives in 2016 coincided with the election of the most divisive president in our history. The film was made during Reagan’s presidency but women now are angrier than ever. Our rights are under attack on every level. I didn’t think the film could be relevant today. 

One of the uncomfortable realizations, watching the film almost four decades after its release, is how current it feels. What are some of the things that strike you watching it now as too close, or perhaps that you are most surprised still strike a chord with young audiences?

Some people remark on coincidences in the film—the World Trade Center attack, the so-called “suicide” of Sandra Bland. The president in the film is a Social Democrat along the lines of Bernie Sanders, forced to make compromises while in office. All I had hoped from anyone watching Born In Flames was that people would come out of it inspired to discuss ideas—and perhaps to act. Everywhere I go, I see a vibrant younger generation tired of the status quo. I wanted to make a film that was also fun to watch—no one has to listen to the words, just ride along on the music—but still be inspired to do something. Today I hope it inspires them to vote.

If you are interested in hearing more from Lizzie Borden, her conversation with Saisha Grayson will be webcast live at 6 p.m. Saturday, March 7 and archived on SAAM's website.

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