Women Filmmakers Festival at SAAM
LIZZIE BORDEN: Actually, it's so strange to see it now because I realize there was a lot of cultural appropriation in it and that I keep recognizing each time, and at that time it seemed more inoffensive, I think. But now, it would be like, “Oh no, you can't do that. Don't do your hair that way. Don't wear that scarf.” It's interesting.
SG: Yeah, particularly with Radio Ragazza. What’s that actress’ name?
LB: Adele Bertei. Yeah, people dressed like that, though.
SG: That was a moment. But, you know, one of the things when we were talking—you know, I used the term “intersectional feminism,” and you pointed out that that was something that was invented sort of twenty years after.
LB: Ten years. Yeah, 1992 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, yes. When I was making the film, we consciously and in the text of the film, which I actually listened to this time because usually when I re-watch the film I just listen to other things, but this time I was very conscious of the elements of it that would make it intersectional before the word was coined, and it was there because I was really listening for class elements this time. But “intersectional” by Kimberlé Crenshaw put a word to it. But then people actually sometimes do things backwards, like they ask me, “How aware were you of intersectionality when you were making the film?” and you say, well, not at all, really, because it did put together so well because once there's language for it, then one becomes more conscious of it, so the word was great.
SG: But you did say some of the thinking that led to the making of this film was your awareness that a lot of the women's movement and conversations you were part of were very white, right?
LB: Not just very white—everybody was white downtown! I mean, everybody. I came from the art world. Well, this is really terrible because there were maybe three black artists, and today they've been acknowledged by huge shows, but they really weren't that prevalent, and there was one curator at the Metropolitan who bought work. Actually, right now, because Ana Mendieta is finally getting known globally, she bought some early Mendieta drawings. She was really amazing in terms of supporting women's art.
Downtown, the culture—and I come from the art world—it was not only male-dominated, but it was predominantly white, predominantly middle-class because a lot of artists could only live there. Even though they were working, they were working art jobs, or they did work construction, but it wasn't working-class work. They were fixing up lofts, and we were the first gentrifiers, and we didn't see ourselves that way, but we were. My loss was $400 a month. But what happened was that when I saw how women were not treated as well in the art world, you know, their work wasn't. Women performance artists like Carolee Schneemann and Hannah Wilke and Joan Jonas were treated almost like jokes, you know? Their work was so good and so in advance of the male artists, and I was really affected by feminism and then saw how white everything was. I wanted to make a film that addressed all of that, and that's how “Born in Flames” happened.
But I realized I didn't really have any women of color. At that point, that wasn't a term, but I didn't have any friends; I didn't know anybody. So I had to find a way to make the film, but I couldn't write a script. The other thing, too, was I had to find a way to make the film but also the feminism of the time was feminism I couldn't relate to entirely. I related to the ideas of feminism, but the dominant form was “Ms.” magazine and Gloria Steinem, who it felt like I couldn't relate to that, which really felt like the epitome of middle-class feminism. Downtown, everybody felt like edgy and nobody had clothes like that, and nobody really could quite fit into that box in a way, so there were a lot of questions to ask. That's why I posited the question that I mentioned before, which was let's posit a society in which things have changed but nothing has changed, and then I thought, well, who would be the most at risk or have the most to lose? It felt like people of color, of course—women of color. How do I get to know people? So I went into bars, and I found the woman who plays Adelaide Norris at my YMCA and went up to her, and I got a lot of rejections. Also, people had to stay in the film for five years until it was done, and it was really at a certain point such a commitment. People change; their hair grows. That's why people are always wearing something on their head. There was no continuity.
SG: That’s a brilliant move. That’s such a great tactic. Can you talk a bit more about process and you talk about this as a part-documentary and in some of the earlier videos, there was also this question of sort of like how documentary can become layered to become the material of a speculative space. Yeah, like the conversations are so—you could just feel like you've dropped into somebody's living room and so how you got that quality is something I’d really love to hear more about.
LB: I think there's a difference between part-documentary and using the techniques of documentary. They’re two very different things. Because I knew from the beginning, the minute you decide that something is going to take place ten years in the future, you've already said something outside of the framework of “documentary” and also, you know, my first film was not a documentary. It was a very experimental documentary. In documentary, you have to somehow honor the subject. Whatever your take is on it, you have to honor where it takes you. Whereas in something which is your take on something, you're not honoring where it goes. So this, by virtue of having a frame, which is the only thing I have to somehow honor is the premise, so with this I used documentary techniques, which is that if I didn't use documentary techniques of having people talk—first of all, there were non-actors, as you could tell since the acting which some people have called really bad acting, which it was. They're real people. The only actors, like Eric Bogosian, really had nothing to do, and he was totally miserable, which was not hard to play. But documentary techniques were used. Basically, they were improvising. Some of the people who are really playing themselves were very good because they were used to speaking in an improvised way, like Flo Kennedy. I never knew what was going to come out of her mouth, so when she said that thing about, “What would you rather see come through the door: one lion or 500 mice?” Wow, nobody expected that, but that was Flo. I have no idea why she agreed to be in this little, ratty—
SG: How did she become involved? I’m so curious.
LB: I have no idea. I don’t remember. I was trying to remember. When she and her law partner go to the precinct to try to get her out, that actor knew her and said he could introduce us, and I think she just liked the premise because she could really relate to the ideas in the premise. So for her, it was her life's work, that kind of statement. She was a provocateur; she loved the idea of making statements like that, like a woman has the right to violence just like the right to pee. So we would set up scenes like, okay, Flo, say something like—and she would just say whatever would come into her mind, or demonstrations. There were real demonstrations that I would say borrow from wherever and then there were fake demonstrations. Like the secretary strike was a fake demonstration which real people entered, so it was a combination of that. Like the radio stations being destroyed was footage I found from Italian radio stations being destroyed.
I edited this for five years on an editing machine, and the reason it took five years was because I could only shoot when I had $200, and then I would gather people together and go out and shoot. It took two years before I knew what the story was going to be. I was just gathering ideas, and then I met some of the women. I met Honey, I found Jeannie, and then a really important thing happened, which was the brother of the guy who plays the socialist news leader, he came back with footage from the Sahara of real women fighting. That was real; nobody else had it. He gave it to me, and I thought, “Wow, this is the turning point. I can make a story around that.” Because you could have all the footage in the world but not have a story. So then I created the story and then at the end, wrote speeches for the news people, who were kind of out of work or want to be real newscasters.
SG: They have the voice down perfectly.
LB: They have the voice down, right. So that was the way it happened, but I couldn't have done it in a year. But I was editing all the time, so it was a script written on an editing machine with certain scenes. Sometimes we had a scene that was done like a little, mini, very low-budget Hollywood—that's a metaphor—movie, like stealing the U-Haul trucks. That had to be storyboarded because it was like an action scene that maybe cost a little more than $200 because we had to rent the U-Hauls and all of that, but it was the kind of movie where sense could be made only by putting it together.
I didn't go to film school, which I don't advocate. How many of you have gone to film school, any of you? Okay, so you know how important film school is. People would have told me I was crazy if I was in film school and wanted to work this way. They would have said, “How do you make a movie if you have no idea where it's going?” Because I had no idea, and I didn't even know if I could finish it. I didn't know if I would have a story. I didn't know if I could find women who would want to commit. I could have gotten no’s from everybody, and that didn't happen. But then after I finished that and then did “Working Girls,” which was about women working in the sex industry, I realized I needed to know what, whoever went to film school, what you in film school learned, so I had to teach myself what is a story in three acts or five acts. How do you actually structure something? How do you shoot something? So I had to learn by myself.
In the art world, you learn certain things. You learn how visually to see; you learn how to edit. You know, a couple of the first editing jobs I had were from artists. Do you know the artist Richard Serra? He gave me my first editing job. I came from the art world. One day, he came, he gave me a bunch of soundtracks, and he said, “Edit this.” I shot a film in a steel mill in Germany. “Do the soundtrack.” I'm like, “Okay, yeah, sure.” So I taught myself how to edit. Talk about messy—I talk about messy. Well, that was messy because I could never work with an assistant, but I knew where everything was. Same thing with my film. After you shoot for five years, you kind of know where everything is, but you could never explain it to anyone else. But I love this privacy of it all. The shooting part was a lot of running around. You know, I had always had old Cadillacs and old Lincoln Continentals that I parked in front of my loft, and I put like a fake film permit out forever. You could not get away with any of that today.
SG: That's great. I mean, there’s many things I love, but one is the number of sort of like feminist rubrics that are brought to—like wages for housework was an Italian feminist movement, and it's so interestingly critiqued and brought into conversation and third world women's solidarity and the fact that that comes from that footage. I just think it's really amazing as I was watching it to sort of see the number of possibilities. One of the things that I just can't get over is how nuanced the political conversations are, and I don't know if I've ever on film seen just the possibility of people who have similar aims having really different tactics and sort of working through the depth of that and then all of these kind of organizational methods. It's like a primer for organizing, and I was curious how involved with different movements or that kind of activism you had been or were through this because those are the kinds of conversations that I don't think other generations are sort of seeing how to do that unless you step into a movement.
LB: I have a confession to make, and this comes from just something I've been thinking about in the last day because I was talking earlier to a woman who has a podcast called “Bad Feminist” based on the Roxane Gay book. I'm a really bad feminist. I am a feminist, and I've been proudly a feminist then and I am one now, and I understood when I was making “Born in Flames” that you can throw the word away, especially among other cultures, because it's associated with white, middle-class women. Just throw the term out. I think that's extremely relevant today and in the past few years and showing “Born in Flames” that sometimes you just have to get into another aisle. You just have to move over and shut up, and I've been happy to do that, but I was not involved with any organizing or any groups or anything because I'm a terrible group person. If I believe in a certain political policy, I’m the worst person to talk about it because I can never remember the facts. I'm an Aquarian, you guys! I can't really think about things in the term of organizing.
SG: It’s kind of amazing how much comes through then.
LB: It's an absorption of a time. It's a time. I learn things afterwards about a time, and I realized I must have read certain things, like for example, the Combahee River Collective from the ‘70s were the ones to come up with the term “identity politics” because they wanted—do you know of them? They were Barbara Smith and Audre Lorde. They came up with the term of “identity politics” because they wanted their own lane in between like white female feminism and the Black Power movement, which was so dominantly male, but that was their identity politics, which is now being so maligned as something else. The term has changed, but that also became intersectionality, so it was interesting. But I read that afterwards and I thought, “Oh my god, I must have read their pamphlets somehow,” because the only talking I had done was with art language with like people like Mayo Thompson, who wrote the song “Born in Flames.” I asked for a song, and I was going to call the film “Guérillères” after the Monique Wittig book or whatever, even though I had never read the book, and I thought people would call it “gorillas” and so he wrote a song called “Born in Flames.” So I thought “Born in Flames” has to be the title. But I never know what the lyrics were because until a couple of years ago when somebody asked to print them, that's all about the working class and they were so radical, but I never actually could understand the lyrics until a couple of years ago when he sent them to me.
SG: Well, I think it's time to open up to the audience. Do we have some questions?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: What was the inspiration to add all of the early feminist punk bands, such as the Raincoats, into the soundtrack?
LB: Adele Bertei, who played Isabel from Radio Ragazza, she was a friend from way before I started filming—did you know the filmmakers Beth B and Scott B and all those? Oh, there's a whole bunch of filmmakers who came from the art world. She was a friend, and she knew Pat Place and all these punk musicians. They were just all friends, so there was just a lot of that music floating around, so that that was an inspiration for that. The choice of the radio stations—Honey's kind of almost reggae and church-oriented stuff and then Radio Ragazza and her sort of more punk-oriented stuff was the choice, and sometimes it was a choice just based on what the visuals felt like. So that was just the atmosphere, and CBGB's was downtown.
One of the things that your question makes me think of is that even though I had to turn my back on the art world, which I did, and I just didn't feel like I was at all in sync with the art going on at that time, it was still a place where you drew from the downtown music, downtown theater groups. The guy who plays the FBI agent was part of with the Wooster Group. This was just who you ran into. The guy who harasses the woman on the subway—he goes under another name here—is Mark Boone, Jr. He's got a big belly now. He’s on TV a lot. You wouldn't recognize him. You just ask people, “Will you be in my movie for a day?” It just is because you ran into people and they were part of the scene, so it's really the sound of the scene. Had I been uptown, the art world wasn't there. Now the places where the art world is happening is not there necessarily. Now it's corporate art world downtown. I mean, it's like Disneyland art world; it's insane. Like Detroit—I don't know where you go to. I would love to know like where this movie could be made, if this movie, and by whom, like what place in the world?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: When you talk about having someone remake it, “The 19th*,” have you heard of this magazine? It’s based in Austin, Texas. I forget the name of the woman who’s in charge, but she’s Black.
LB: “The 19th*,” based in Austin, Texas. Thank you, I will Google that. Thank you very much.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Where are the actors now? Have you kept up with them?
LB: I have tried to, yes. I tried to find them all when the Anthology Film Archives restored the film in 2016; I looked everyone up. Well, Honey sadly died in 2010, which was a heartbreak for me because I was involved with her, and she sadly died and like awhile, 10 years ago. Jeannie, who plays Adelaide Norris, lives in Boston. She works with the elderly, and she's a social worker. She came to some screenings and then actually did Q&As and other screenings where I couldn't go, so she's fine. Some of the others—Adele I see all the time. She lives in L.A., so I see her all the time. There are other ones.
Oh my god, the weirdest thing happened to me in L.A. I showed the film and this young person came up to me and she said, “Hi, my mother was a manicurist and my other mother was a terrorist in your film, and I’m their kid.” Like, oh my god, we really are talking generations, but it's really interesting. Everybody was scattered—Seattle, Portland, I mean people are all over the world, but I really wanted to be in touch with people. But here and there where I show the film, somebody turns up who worked on it, which is amazing.
I wanted to point out that in 1983, the idea of destroying the World Trade Center—it was only the transmitter, not the whole thing. Yeah, you got the point, yeah. Clearly that wouldn't have to happen today because all you need is your cell phone to transmit a message, which is how clearly it could come through. You know, I think it's happening right now. For example, what was the name of the woman who was in the back of the car when her boyfriend got killed and she very clear…?
SG: It’s Philando Castile’s girlfriend.
LB: She very coolly shot it from the backseat of the car. She had the presence of mind to tape the whole thing. She was with her child, and she taped it and it was communicated worldwide just by that, so that is huge power. So it seems like one thing to do now, one activist thing, is get iPhones in the hands of women all around the world, which is power right there. It's amazing to me that all this stuff had to be done to get a VHS seen, but nobody is killed in the whole movie.
But it's a question because when the film first came out, some women said that I was trying to revert to old ‘60s violence, and for me it was not that. This was a question because my real question is what happens to the women after the last shot, which is they're all arrested, and then what happens? This is such a great film I'm going to mention that I'm embarrassed to mention it, which is one of the films I was watching a lot was “The Battle of Algiers.” But there, after all the terrorists are killed, there's a whole new wave coming to fill their places, but I also am not sure now with all the terrorism going on that it would be a good idea to present the idea of guns or violence. I don't know whether that would be the right thing. I'd have to think about it. It's a conversation, but the power of other means is becoming so important. But anyway, more questions, please!
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Just a commentary on what you were saying pertaining to the film. I know Ava DuVernay. I think Ava is just an incredible filmmaker and is really good. She did the film “13th,” which is on Netflix; it’s great. It’s about kind of how the mass incarceration in America comes from the 13th Amendment and is just a reiteration of slavery. She does a lot of really good radical works and when you asked that question, she definitely popped into my mind as someone who could make a film like this.
LB: Yeah, I loved her series as well, “When They See Us.”
SG: In the back there, yeah.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi, I had a film playing yesterday. Just for me personally, as someone who has gone to film school, I’m in love with your film. You presented a model for me outside of what I learned about how to make a film. My film is a web series about a group of people coming together to resist and fight against police brutality, which is one my current main concerns. It’s a collective primarily of women, with queer Black women coming together to find different ways to resist police brutality in near future Philadelphia. Thank you for your film. It gave me that model for storytelling but also for the process and how you go about shooting a film. You don’t necessarily have to raise a ton of money and bring together a professional crew. I worked with the community of West Philadelphia. I worked with the social justice activism community, who were non-professional actors, in addition to some professional actors. I worked with different venues within the community that helped me have spaces to shoot in. I raised money through the community to make this for myself, just to put that out there.
LB: Oh my god, thank you. Is there any way I can see it? Will you send me a link? Yes, please, please.
SG: I can connect you guys, yeah.
LB: That would be great. That would be great. I just came in last night, so I'm sorry I missed it, but I must see your work. I'm so happy and honored that you were able to use it in that way, in that sense, because for me, what I hoped from this film was that—the reason it's layered so that you don't have to listen to any of those words in it is that one might hopefully come out with just a desire to do something to act, just even be agitated, because the words are a lot. If you wanted to hear them, you could. If you opted out, you didn't have to because I know that I'm somebody who has a hard time listening to speeches. I find them sometimes very dull. But that is so heartening, and I can't wait to see your work. Thank you.
SG: Okay, one more question. Yeah.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I was wondering how does it feel to see a future that's in the past, in reality? Maybe because I was a small child back then, but for me it was really striking. It seems that in many ways we have kind of regressed. All the women that you present—they are so unencumbered with the issue of looking a certain way or conforming in a certain manner. I mean, they look happier. It seems like at some point we have diverged, and that kind of future that in your dystopic vision kind of looks a little better than what we have now.
LB: Actually, that's very interesting because it sort of evolved into a dystopia when it wasn't a dystopia to begin with. It actually looked like that. Now, when I go to New York, I see it as so cleaned up and sanitized. I miss the old, grubby Times Square. I miss the Lower East Side that actually looked like that, where it really looked like the buildings—it turned into a dystopia only by time. So now I do think people look healthier, but then again I've been living in California where everybody is very “mindful,” which is one of those words like “takeaway,” which I just don't like. It's overused.
But what's difficult for me is when I hear the Supreme Court deciding on a case which further restricts abortion in some states, where I hear about individual cases in any of the areas which I thought would be vastly improved for women and everyone else. Or even seeing that thing I borrowed about what protests where a man is hit in the head, and I see well, my God, this still happens in this day and age. It happens. How could this be? The brutality but the sense of women, us, being treated so—it’s the word, patriarchy—what is that thing and how do we do that?
I see light, though. I see that things have changed a lot, like, for example, one of the areas where this society has really improved, and it's almost invisible but it's there is when I shot the film—you can see it in the film—there are women in there who I think if they had the choice today, they would have hopped gender. They would be a they. Interestingly enough, they all had names like Alex or Pat or whatever. It was not an option, but in that area, the whole trans area, there's been improvement in terms of self-definition, but I live in West Hollywood. In Hollywood, 2 or 3 or 4 trans people get killed every year. What's that about? So there is improvement in many ways, but there's a step back in so many other ways. We're talking about liberal places. We’re talking about New York, we're talking about West Hollywood, but what about the rest of the country?
To me, when I see the film, I see a lot of the women who were in it, and they're very—Adele from Radio Ragazza has been in the program for years and years. She's never been healthier; she never looked better. She's just doing very well as a writer, you know, about music and in a lot of other ways. So it's just really interesting for me to see how a city infrastructure can improve for certain people. I go downtown to where I used to live and it looks like Disneyland, but it's for who? I see SoHo, and who's that for? It's not for any of the people who it's for. The ultra, ultra, ultra gentrifiers have moved in, so it's kind of sad, and you know the thing I most miss? It’s really—you're going to laugh. I miss the World Trade Center a lot. We loved to hate it when it was there because it was this big thing in the middle of nowhere. Like there was really a beach at the tip of Manhattan, and that's where I filmed the shots that were faked to fit into the Sahara shots, on the beach. Vivienne Dick, who was a filmmaker, also was using the World Trade Center. But now it's gone, and I feel the landscape is ruined and will always be ruined, so when I see it, that was the real World Trade Center that my friend Sheila walked through. It was the real elevator from the World Trade Center, and nobody stopped her. There was no security, and I feel so sad. Anyway, that was kind of a long-winded response to your wonderful question. Thank you.
SG: Okay, and because of that, I think we're going to end on that. Thank you so, so much, Lizzie. Thank you all for coming.
LB: Thank you for coming!
SG: Thank you to all the people who helped make this happen.
Independent filmmaker Lizzie Borden (Born In Flames) joins Saisha Grayson, SAAM Curator of Time-based Media, in conversation as part of the Women Filmmakers Festival at SAAM. The conversation is the culmination of the two-day festival presented by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Eaton DC. The festival highlights women and nonbinary artists working outside the Hollywood game, making their own rules, and seeking adventurous audiences for their bold visions.