lizzie borden: feminist trailblazer

As her magnum opus returns to UK shores, Lizzie Borden – the visionary artist behind Born in Flames – talks rebellion, feminist artistry, and her nostalgia for 70s NYC.

Lizzie Borden was born a badass, but it took a typically awkward teenagehood and a career of landmark films for her to truly embrace it. The Massachusetts-born artist, known best for her feather rustling films about feminism and sex work that were released practically decades before their time, spent the majority of the 70s and 80s going against the grain of American filmmaking. She was a force to be reckoned with: a supremely intelligent women who knew exactly what she wanted to say in the way that she knew best.

That rebellious energy manifested early when she decided to change her first name from Linda (“there were too many Linda’s in school!”) to Lizzie, instantly associating herself with Massachusetts' other enfant terrible: Lizzie Borden, the notorious 19th century axe murderer. Once she’d made her movie debut, she’d tell an American film journal that this was  “the best rebellion that [she] could make” at that age.

It’s the first thing I relay back to her when she picks up the phone in Los Angeles. “It was much more about avoiding humiliation and pissing my parents off than an early rebellion,” she says, trying to clarify an old, misjudged quote that has followed her around ever since. In reality, her reason for becoming the new Lizzie Borden was a brilliant, typically teenage response to high school teasing. Her surname made her a target, so she could either become an axe murderer or forever be known as Elsie the Cow, the mascot of Borden’s Dairy.

But school was a short-lived memory for Lizzie, who says she doesn’t remember all that much about growing up. Instead, her ability to recall moments of her filmmaking days with eye-opening clarity have taken over. Speaking to her feels like opening the old diary she kept while making the film we’re here to talk about, Born in Flames, which recently screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Her knowledge of the film, its powerful themes, and the way it predicted the future is somewhat eery and encyclopaedic.

Shot in documentary style, Born in Flames follows two feminist activist groups operating out of a dystopian, oppressive New York City. Both use pirate radio stations to have their points of view heard; one is headed by Isabel, the mouthy, lesbian anchor of Radio Regazza, while the gentler, African-American woman Honey runs Phoenix Radio, its competitor. The two groups share different ideals, but both use direct action to subvert the dangerous, anti-female government in power. Over the years it’s been labelled a political sci-fi, but at times its themes feel too real to be considered fiction.

“It was such a little film that we made for $30,000,” Lizzie reminds me, when I ask her if the world’s reaction to it had changed over the decades. “It was seen as a scrappy and was embraced by the kind of women who were in it; feminist audiences mainly.” But it wasn’t without its fair share of criticism. Such a bare-faced handling of issues such as race, sexism and heterosexism shocked the conservative audiences who came across it. “We were attacked because [the film] got a government grant, and the kind of films that got [support] at that time were meant to be cinematic and full of beautiful imagery – not have a bunch of scrappy lesbians running around! In some ways, it was a little too rough looking for major audiences.”

The idea that [Born In Flames] would be relevant now is a shock to me

While the intersection of politics and womanhood now feels ingrained in mainstream culture, Borden’s belief that direct action was the best way to evoke change in the public’s perception of feminism felt like a bold move. In her circle of NYC directors, activism in movies was something that nobody wanted to touch.

"Its politics were a little extreme [compared to] other films of its time,” she admits now, stating that herself, Vivienne Dick and Variety director Betty Gordon were the only women making risqué statements with their cinema. Around the same time, Jim Jarmusch and his male friends were also using the bluesy vibes of downtown New York for his much more low key movies. They would go on to define an era of Manhattan-set cinema, but Borden, although an admirer, didn't find herself identifying with the themes they were tackling with their work. “I just didn’t relate to films that weren’t political,” she says. “Born in Flames was a reaction against them.”

Lizzie made the dangerous move of shooting her film without a script, instead consulting with cast members, many who were simply reflecting their real life situations, to form their own dialogue. “It had to be something with so many voices, because the only dominant feminist voice [at the time] was coming from Ms. Magazine and Gloria Steinem, and I even considered them to be too bourgeois. This had to be evolutionary. It had to be written on the editing machine with the women who [were in it].”

Her wishes to be heard have paid off. Born in Flames is now considered a seminal feminist work, studied and referenced by scholars and cinephiles the world over. “The idea that it would be relevant now is a shock to me,” Lizzie tells me, surprised. “I find it amazing that there is a younger audience reading into it. I really wanted to make something that would evolve from a premise, [so] I don’t think of it so much as science fiction, but speculation, you know?”

Speculation is the perfect word. So many elements of Born in Flames did, in many respects, predict the way women, and particularly women of colour, would be treated by society thirty years down the line. It came to her as she sat down to watch the restored print for the first time last year. “The political atmosphere was so similar in 2016,” Lizzie says, noting the correlation between a scene in which a woman dies mysteriously in incarceration and the tragic death of Sandra Bland.

Back in 1983, visual media was the best method for an artist’s protest; Lizzie Borden brought the voices of her disenfranchised cast with her. Now, that responsibility lies with the internet, where anybody can have their two cents noted. Lizzie might be a lover of the past, but she recognises that. “Social media makes a film like Born in Flames unnecessary because it’s so immediate,” she says, mentioning the struggle and time she needed to bring the film together. “[Back when we made the film], I innocently decided to go the way that it took me for as long as it would need to. Recently I rediscovered how tortured I was, doubting that it would ever come together.”

Thankfully the film did, in part thanks to the city that it was set in. I ask Lizzie about her fondest memories of filming in New York City, but instead we slip into conversation about the madness of the Downtown art scene. “It was like the Wild West. You could shoot everywhere because nobody cared,” she reminisces, reeling off the reasons why Born in Flames felt destined to be shot there. “Everything was so messed up. Buildings were bombed out and graffiti was everywhere”

It might have been run down, but it was an artist’s haven. With cheap rents and high rises, everybody befriended everybody. “The loft I lived in on Broadway was where we all worked,” Lizzie says, “so people came around all the time. Blondie was there at one point, and Jack Smith wound up doing a performance there once because his loft fell through!” she laughs, “Looking back, I don’t remember getting any sleep.”

But a lot can change over the course of three decades, and in New York’s case, the onslaught of gentrification has tarnished the way she feels about the city. She now lives in Los Angeles, a slightly sunnier and more relaxed home for her, where she spends more time writing rather than in the director’s chair.

So does she like going back to Manhattan?

“What the fuck is happening?” she shouts. “It’s outrageous!” Lizzie reels off a spiel of luxury department stores that now occupy that Broadway space she once rented for practically pennies 30 years ago. The gentrification of the city has shaken her up. “The New York of my memory is gone,” she says, with melancholy in her voice. “I become overwhelmed with nostalgia whenever I go back there, which isn’t that often. Not only do I miss that era and the people, but I miss the [sense of] community.”

Community, after all, is what gained Lizzie Borden that badass status. If it weren’t for the friends she met and the conversations she had, Born in Flames wouldn’t have existed to help pave the way for fearless feminist films that would follow. She’s a trailblazer, albeit a less raucous one now, but when Lizzie Borden has something she wants to say? By god, the world still listens.

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