Part of the thrill of immersing yourself in a lot of low-fi genre films & amateurish schlock is in watching outsider artists break the rules of traditional filmmaking, whether or not they know those rules exist. There’s a D.I.Y. punk ethos to B-movies & micro-budget productions that allow for wilder & more varied creative choices than professional studio filmmaking permits. Even within that paradigm, Lizzie Borden’s 1983 feminist sci-fi cheapie Born in Flames is a total anomaly. Although it visually recalls the cheap, amateur ugliness of a grindhouse horror film or a Doris Wishman sex romp, Born in Flames is directly opposed to exploitation both as an artform and as a philosophy. It’s an angry, ramshackle work of radical politics that transcends its jumbled narrative & the typical limitations of its micro-budget sci-fi genre to deliver a clear, unmistakable message: “All oppressed people have a right to violence” and revolution can only be achieved through solidarity. I’ve seen more low-fi, rough-around-the-edges 80s genre films in my life than I’ll ever be able to remember, but I doubt I’ve ever seen one half as politically pointed and culturally essential as this feminist punk milestone.
Set ten years after an American Socialist revolution, Born in Flames follows several factions of NYC women at unrest with their country’s supposed political utopia. Adopting the academic distance of a documentary, the film depicts the deficiencies in the nation’s self-congratulatory political “progress” by showing that it most benefits straight, white men. “The World’s First True Socialist Democracy” still ignores intersectional issues of racial injustice, unequal pay, sexual harassment, and queer identity bias that marginalize the women at its fringes. Several unassociated resistance groups rise up in this crisis, all dedicated to the same goals of radicalized feminist politics, but in disagreement on the tactics necessary to achieve them. With the revolutionary broadcasts of two rival pirate radio stations serving as a mouthpiece for the cause and relentless montages set to repetitions of a titular post-punk song by the band Red Krayola providing a visual representation of progress, the movie gradually makes a unified front against systemic oppression out of the chaos of unrest. Its disjointed narrative style mirrors the unorganized radical politics of its subjects until their collective mission & the moral lesson of the central story become clear, focused, and weaponized. Born in Flames is above all else a film about political organization, a topic that’s only enhanced & deepened by the outsider art aesthetic of its means.
What’s even more exciting than the film’s visual & narrative punk energy is how prescient its politics are. On one level, Born in Flames actually functions as a genuine documentary of what NYC women’s lives looked like in the early 1980s, especially in detailing images of what was then considered “women’s work”: cleaning house, feeding babies, working on a factory line, applying condoms to romantic partners– all underpaid, undervalued labor. More astonishingly, the film distinctly predicts what political unrest looks & sounds like in the 2010s. Women on bikes band together to break up public harassment & sexual assault in radical acts of vigilante justice, only to be labeled as “gangs” & “terrorists” by the press (a narrative echoed in last year’s real life documentary Ovarian Psycos). Intersectionality-minded jabs at the shortcomings of “white feminism” mirror much of the political conversation that surrounded this year’s historic Women’s March, including footage that could easily have been captured at that event with just the right Instagram filter. White men buck against the rise of oppressed voices, claiming that they’re the true victims in all this, recalling “Not All Men” & “All Lives Matter” retorts that relentlessly derail recent, legitimate protests. Mysterious deaths in police custody, public shaming of unprosecuted rapists, arguments between peacefully working within the system for progress or violently toppling it: so much of Born in Flames‘s political DNA rings true to the exact, unsettled moment in time we’re struggling through right now. The only real difference is that the soundtrack features “New Town” by The Slits instead of a rallying cry from Kendrick Lamar.
Born in Flames excels as a document of its time in D.I.Y. filmmaking & radical politics and as an eternally fresh call to arms for oppressed women in a Western society that tells them they should be content with whatever slight progress has already been made. Its tactics of radicalized recruitment & resistance feel as current to the times as ever, yet its visual documentation of black lesbian punks running the streets of NYC distinctly belong to an long gone, idealized past. The way this refusal to accept the system as it is bleeds over to the conventions of cinematic storytelling is downright infectious. This is a rare film with form just as authentically punk as its content, a combination that miraculously amounts to a radical politics powder keg instead of incoherent, unfocused anger. Much like the women who populate its not-so-futuristic political dystopia, Born in Flames starts off disorganized in its intent & tactics, but eventually coalesces into a formidable political force that threatens to topple the long-standing systems that serve as its oppressors, whether that be by-the-rules filmmaking or centuries of patriarchy.