On Thursday 24th April Cinema6 launched with a screening of Born in Flames at the Peckham Plex. This is a lightly edited version of Alex’s introduction to the film.
The criteria for the launch event of Cinema6 was a film that would bring an audience together, out of curiosity, and in interest in the project. As an under-distributed and ill-preserved film from 1983, which represents a now marginal form of militant-separatist-feminism, ‘Born in Flames’ seemed to have a huge novelty value. If nothing else the attraction could have been simply as historical curio.
However the warmth and enthusiasm that greeted the screening suggested that, far from being an obsolete oddity, Lizzie Borden’s film resonates very strongly today. The stylistic and thematic tropes that mark ‘Born in Flames’ as belonging to a particular era and ideological space, transmit a pertinent contemporary politics. Borden’s cultural and social context, downtown, pre-gentrification Manhattan, is very different to our own. This is brought into relief, sometimes comically and sometimes sharply, at different moments throughout the film. Because of, and not in-spite of ,the film’s peculiarities, the provocation it makes, screened in 2014 in Peckham, is to think through definitions of social organisation and togetherness, in new ways, outside of cultural norms.
‘Born in Flames is a film about armed struggle and the right to violence. As the character Zella, played by lawyer and civil rights activist Flo Kennedy, says “We have the right to violence, all oppressed people have the right to violence.” In Borden’s post-Socialist revolutionary America – which as the film begins is in celebratory mode after ten years of a “humanist American democracy”– women are willfully oppressed by the state apparatus. The dramatic tension of the plot comes from how different groups and individuals negotiate the legitimacy and necessity of direct, violent, action. As the narrative progresses a culture of solidarity grows up around the Womens Army and their violent acts. The negative category of violence becomes re-established as a hugely productive force, not just through the effectiveness of direct action, but as a generative energy that acts as a socially binding agent.
It is important to recognise that the violence in ‘Born in Flames’ is violence in the abstract; there are no scenes of beatings, there is no blood and the consequences of the violent actions are not born out. Actual violence has a real cost. There is a particular scene of iconoclasm at the end of the film, where the Woman’s Army appear to blow up the twin towers, that articulates the difference in the contexts of the film’s production and reception. It brings Borden’s political theology into conflict with lived experience and makes it clear that ‘Born in Flames’ is not a manifesto, it is a speculative sci-fi film about political alternatives.
Part of the appeal of screening ‘Born in Flames’ was how much fun the film is. The soundtrack by Red Krayola is particularly great, and accompanied by diegetic musical performance that drives the plot and builds a rhythmic and musical narrative. In the early montage sequence, of women performing all sorts of domestic, manual and sexual labour, their small atomised and efficient movements are brought together into a larger social and inclusive space by the sound. This strong musical element of ‘Born in Flames’ is foregrounded by the role of pirate radio stations. The DJs literally provide narration for the action, and the radio station, as organisations, are pivotal objects in the plot. The radical community of the Women’s Army and their supporting factions are brought into representation through a sense of musicality and the shared experience of performance.
‘Born in Flames’ is not just a film about doing, but also how to do. Borden’s treatment of media and mediation is as a process of connectivity and as a force for community building. This echoes some of the aspirations of the Screen Shadows screening programme –’The Watching Community’–, and the Cinema6 project as a whole. ‘Born in Flames’ offers a way to define, through action, alternative structures of organisation and communal existence. Something I have very much in mind re-watching this film recently, is the necessity of this kind of imagination today. One of the ambitions, of both Screen Shadows and Cinema6, is to use the institutions of film and cinema to give space for a community to define itself. With this in mind, the polemical ‘Born in Flames’ was an appropriate point to kick off from.