Our Rating: ★★★½☆
L Factor: Lesbian Film
Short Take: New York is celebrating the tenth anniversary of a peaceful Social-Democratic War of Liberation
Alternate Titles:
Year: 1983
Duration: 90 min
Language: USA/English
MPAA: Not Rated
Director: Lizzie Borden
Writer: Lizzie Borden, Ed Bowes
Starring: Honey, Adele Bertei, Jean Satterfield, Flo Kennedy, Kathryn Bigelow

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Born in FlamesI’d seen the cover of Born in Flames for years, first on an old VHS tape purchased on eBay, and a few years ago online when the DVD was released. The film is always billed as a feminist science fiction movie. Reinforcing this, the woman on the cover wears a headset that I thought to be on a spaceship. Without more information, the assumptions I made led me to repeatedly shove it aside for later viewing, assuming the worst about a low budget sci-fi movie. Instead, this incredibly original, exciting film captivated me and changed my understanding of what constitutes science fiction.

Although the science fiction classification certainly fits Born in Flames, in no way does it fit the stereotype of the genre. Rob Nelson calls it a work of “futurist fiction.” This phrase seems better suited to the film, which looks into the future at a time when New York is celebrating the tenth anniversary of a peaceful Social-Democratic War of Liberation.

The movie is shot in a documentary style, with extensive use of a handheld camera, many scenes shot in the streets of New York, and newsreel footage of actual events. It “feels” like a real historical documentary or a period piece, not some time in the future. Director Lizzie Borden revealed that there was no script, and the actors were not professionals, which further explains the realism of the characters, politics and dialog.

Feminists who lived through the 1970s and/or 1980s will certainly find the political arguments familiar, especially the differences defined by race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. The character of Zella was even played by well-known African-American feminist activist Flo Kennedy, who left the National Organization for Women (NOW) for more radical pursuits. The Socialist party newspaper editors in the film mirror the “wait-your-turn” attitudes Kennedy confronted at NOW before it took on issues outside of those of middle-class, white, straight women. When she joined the Black Panthers, Kennedy found herself facing that same attitude about women’s rights in an organization that subjugated those concerns to the issue of race. (Of note, Oscar winning director Kathryn Bigelow plays one of the editors.)

But for all of its realism, Born in Flames is still quite futuristic, not only because it is a fictional world after a revolution, but because it depicts a radical world in which the martyrdom of the Women’s Army leader breaks down the walls between women. Borden did it by gathering black women and white women and listening to their “genuine voices,” creating a story based on their ideas and improvisations. It is as relevant today as it was in 1983. The issues may have changed, but they have not by any means gone away. Examples of progressive groups that bury the interests of racial and ethnic groups, women, the working class, the LGBT community, etc. are still common.

Nelson calls it “a film for the ages” and makes a good point that most of the new gay and lesbian films each year won’t be nearly as relevant 25 years later. Today it is still exciting, with a distinct point of view missing in the more common mainstream-like work from most lesbian filmmakers. (AB)