In the aftermath of a political cataclysm, feminists seem to be gaining a modicum of agency and means even as their “movement” has fractured along intersectional lines. FBI agents spy on them, while reporters from a liberal newspaper investigate and often critique their tactics. Welcome to the world of Born in Flames.
Directed by Lizzie Borden, who took her name from the famous historical ax murderer in an early act of rebellion, it may seem strange at first to call this movie a work of “science fiction”, due to an utter lack of futuristic technological trappings or alien lifeforms. But it does take place in an alternate timeline ten years after a socialist revolution. And in Ronald Reagan’s America circa 1983, the year of its release, what could feel more like science fiction than socialism? Born in Flames mixes faux-documentary, surveillance, and various other movie vernaculars to trace three distinct factions of feminist activism that have sprung up in response to the evolving political climate: Radio Regazza, Phoenix Radio, and the Women’s Army. Each has different intended audiences, priorities, and tactics, and the points at which they both touch and diverge is a major part of the movie’s plot. What unfolds is a fascinating and unapologetically women-centered look at what progress looks like, how it can be made, and at what cost it can come.
Perhaps the most astonishing fact of this piece of storytelling is how relevant it still feels today, twenty-five years on, as activists like Flavia Dzodan declare, “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullsh*t!”, the Women’s March comes under scrutiny for the issues and faces it centers and erases, “white feminism”‘s often racist and classist roots are exposed, and violent outbursts in places like Berkeley, Charlottesville, and beyond test the praxis of nonviolence versus militance. In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re revisiting this essential piece of feminist cinema with five fast facts for audiences new to its gritty, explosive power:
1. Familiar faces
The cast is made up of a diverse array of talent that includes experimental luminary Ron Vawter, activist Florynce “Flo” Kennedy, Adele Bertei of New York bands The Bloods and The Contortions, and a rare in-front-of-the-camera appearance by 2010 Best Director Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow. It also marks actor Eric Bogosian‘s onscreen debut.
2. Feminist fans
Born in Flames is cited by riot-grrrl icon Kathleen Hanna as a major inspiration – in fact, back in her Bikini Kill days she would write the title of the film next to her autograph in hopes that it would inspire her fans to seek it out. How’s that for street cred?
3. Punk’s not dead… at least not yet
The whole movie has an unapologetically punk rock vibe, with proto-punks Red Krayola providing the opening music and the movie’s title, members of The Slits appearing to destroy a car, and a guerilla cinematography style that meant Born in Flames took five years to film in bits and pieces.
4. How the sausage gets made
A multiplicity of tactics are deployed by the activists in Born in Flames, from wheat pasting and pirate radio to street justice and consciousness-raising. All of these strategies for communication, education, advocacy, and accountability are still used today, though we wish there were even more roving bicycle gangs mobbing men who assault women in broad daylight!
5. Real-life inspiration
Borden’s follow-up to Born in Flames, the sex-worker-centric Working Girls (not to be confused with Working Girl, starring Melanie Griffith) explores some of the same themes as its predecessor, albeit with a more mainstream approach. The discovery that multiple women who worked on Born in Flames also supported themselves through prostitution is what allegedly prompted Borden to subsequently pursue this subject matter, and in some ways, Working Girls fills the sex-worker-sized gap in Born in Flames‘ otherwise-insistent intersectionality.