Born in Flames: A Classic Rises from the Ashes
The film Born in Flames was initially released in 1983. It was directed, written, and produced by independent filmmaker Lizzie Borden. Employing a documentary style, Borden’s film depicts life in New York City a decade after a revolution that resulted in a socialist government being installed in the U.S. Although progress was made by the revolution, Born in Flames focuses on how serious issues such as sexism, racism, and homophobia remain significant problems within this new society.
The plot of Born in Flames focuses on two political women’s movements and their efforts to both educate and affect change within their communities. These female-led groups spread their agenda through private radio broadcasts. The most controversial politically active group depicted in the film is the so-called Women’s Army, which is seen through the lens of an FBI investigation as well as a trio of female reporters looking into their activities for a local newspaper.
Unfortunately, although the film was made in the early 80s, the issues it addresses are still extremely relevant in 2018. Throughout Born in Flames, viewers witness instances of violence against women, sexual harassment, unfair work practices, corruption, and the outright refusal by the government to deal with issues important to women such as equal pay for equal work. These problems are depicted as being systemic and clearly not major priorities of the socialist government.
Although Born in Flames is dated in terms of its actual look, it deals with universal social, economic, and political issues. Elements of its plot seem to foreshadow real life events yet to come. One example illustrating this is a sequence in which the Women’s Army disrupts a television broadcast of a message from the U.S. President. This seems strikingly similar to the tactics of the group Anonymous and their operations disrupting various websites and online platforms. The acts of civil disobedience employed by both the fictional Women’s Army as well as the real life Anonymous movement bypass conventional forums of political expression and instead make optimum use of media forums such as radio, television broadcasts, and the internet in order to forward their political agenda.
Because of the political actions and civil disobedience portrayed in Born in Flames, the film shares many thematic elements with more modern films such as V for Vendetta. There’s also a scene in Born in Flames which seems eerily similar to Scorsese’s 1976 Taxi Driver. In both films, individual characters, specifically Travis Bickle and Isabel from the Women’s Army, are depicted purchasing guns off the black market. In both instances these transactions are conducted in a matter of fact and oddly casual manner, as if the parties involved were buying something as mundane as paper products. In each case, the arms dealer nonchalantly explains how to use the weapon all the while ignoring the realities of gun violence.
Given the tragic events of 9/11, the last scene in Born in Flames seems to foreshadow the devastation wrought on that tragic day. Although the Women’s Army supposedly only destroys the radio tower sitting atop the World Trade Centre in this scene, when viewed through post 9/11 eyes, this can’t help but remind audiences of the 2001 terrorist attack as well as inspire memories of the horrific destruction and bloodshed that occurred on that day. Is Borden’s film advocating that violence is the answer? If the radio transmission antenna was indeed the sole target of the women’s attack, it could be argued that their real objective was to make a statement related to the importance of freedom of speech and a rejection of government control of media.
On a lighter note, one of the stars of Born in Flames is Kathryn Bigelow, who plays one of the newspaper reporters investigating the Women’s Army. It seems fitting that the Oscar winning director appeared in this landmark feminist film. Bigelow’s best director award surely influenced and served as a source of inspiration to a wide array of other female filmmakers. Unfortunately, the work of Lizzie Borden has remained marginalized and largely relegated to the status of the feminist niche of filmmaking.
Born in Flames is available to stream on First Run Features.