“Not the Church, not the State, women must control our fate!” These are the words chanted by thousands of protesters fighting for women’s rights at a massive demonstration against the fictional American government of Lizzie Borden’s 1983 film Born in Flames. A week after the second annual Women’s March brought together hundreds of thousands of people globally to stand up against inequalities perpetrated by the White House, the movie feels like an eerily accurate portrayal of current day, despite its release in the early 80s.
The film was screened at Concordia Speculative Life Cluster’s first “Speculating Through Movies” event of the year, which aims to present and discuss different perspectives and themes through film. The documentary-style movie was originally filmed on 16mm film, giving it a gritty, underground feel. Shots of fictional newscasts and radio broadcasts add a level of realism to the film by giving viewers insight into the sociopolitical system against which the characters are fighting.
Set ten years after a “social-democratic war of liberation” put a socialist government in power in the United States, — explores the complex intersectionality of a women’s movement, the dangers of an “at least it’s better than before” mentality, and the rising inequalities under the same government that promised their end. The film makes a point of highlighting both the shared and unique struggles concerning women of different races, classes, genders, sexualities, and abilities, and doesn’t shy away from criticizing those who don’t acknowledge the system of inequality in place.
Written, directed, and produced by Lizzie Borden, the film features a cast made up almost entirely of non-professional actors, mostly Borden’s friends. The style of the film and the portrayal of the characters bring a real spirit of rebellion to a movie that is frighteningly relevant today. Adding to this are the broadcasts of two women-run underground radio stations Radio Ragazza and Phoenix Radio which give the audience both background to the situation and an incredible soundtrack that brings life to the film. The violence and tension present in the streets of 1970s New York are clearly replicated in the film, with news footage showing protests met with violent reactions from the police, and women facing constant catcalling and harassment in the streets and on the subway.
The characters in the film, many of them queer women of colour, lose their jobs and find their voices stifled by the racism and sexism perpetrated by the political system they live under. While the characters all protest differently, the major organization of the film, and eventually the unifying actor, is the Women’s Army. Though the broader aims of this organization are not immediately clear, they are seen patrolling the city on bicycles to scare off harassers on the street, putting up posters with pictures of accused rapists (an action reminiscent of the #MeToo movement), and generally attempting to unite women in the face of oppression.
The greatest challenges to the Women’s Army are recruitement and unification. This is tackled by the army’s founder, Adelaide Norris. Set over a clicking projector displaying photos and videos of Norris and her family and friends, the FBI agent investigating the Women’s Army reports on her life and involvement in revolutionary actions. A financially disadvantaged queer Black woman, Norris finds herself unemployed and dedicates her time to garnering support for the army. Footage earlier in the film shows Norris asking other members of the army to leave their jobs in order to commit themselves fully to the cause. The women have to refuse for fear of the economic burden it would place on them, demonstrating the complex social and economic factors affecting a person’s ability to participate in activism.
Norris is seen attempting to recruit a number of women with various reasons for not joining the army, leading to a scattered and divided group of women hoping for change.When she approaches three white journalists whom she accuses of failing to recognize the oppression they face as women, they talk to her about how “things are so much better” than before the revolution, and how progress may be slow, but it is inevitable. Others that she approaches feel that an organization like the Army is unnecessary, while others still, such as the women at Radio Ragazza, feel that the actions of the army are too muted, failing to make any real change.
This all changes with Norris’ death. Upon her return from North Africa, where she travels to learn about the struggle for equality there and to bring back weapons to aid in the fight, she is arrested and imprisoned on charges of arms smuggling. Shortly thereafter, she is found dead in her cell. Her death is ruled a suicide, but the three journalists whom she had previously attempted to recruit publish their suspicion that she was murdered by the government, sparking a unifying reaction from all of the women who had originally refused to join the Army.
The relevance of the film within the current political climate is striking. Many of the challenges confronted by the women in Borden’s New York are the very challenges being brought to light by women today, and the lack of real change despite frequent promises by governments and institutions is particularly hard hitting. Additionally, as images of Black bodies murdered by police flood the media today — and especially in wake of Sandra Bland’s death in a Texas jail cell in 2015 — the film’s footage of Norris lying in her cell is jarring.
The role of the media in painting the public’s perception of the anti-government movement rising in the city is a constant theme running through the film. The various news segments have newscasters referring to the Women’s Army as “terrorists,” “extremists,” or, almost comically, the “radical lesbian women’s army.” Actions taken in defence of women being harassed are painted as “vigilante justice,” and the initial offenders they are defending others from are pointed as victims, another startling reminder of the media’s tendency to question the accusations made by female victims.
The film ends on a unifying note, with the various women throughout the movie coming together despite what originally divided them. After both radio stations are shut down by authorities, a new combined “Phoenix and Ragazza Radio Station” is broadcast from stolen uHauls around the city. The final broadcast in the film is a call for unity and for action, with the goal being to “deconstruct and reconstruct all the laws that suppress and oppress.” The women in the film make it clear that violence can be necessary to tear down the system of oppression in order to rebuild and enact real structural change. The final speech is a welcome call for unity and inclusion that resonates powerfully:
“It is not only the story of women’s oppression, it is the story of sexism, racism, bigotry, nationalism[…], the story of environmental poisoning and nuclear warfare, of the powerful over the powerless[…]. It is all of our responsibility as individuals and together to examine and to re-examine everything[…] It’s the time of sweet, sweet change for us all.”