An early '80s landmark of indie and queer cinema directed by Detroit-born Lizzie Borden, Born in Flames presents a fragmented narrative of the struggle of a disparate group of revolutionary women in a not-too-distant future dystopia. Set in New York City 10 years after a radical, nonviolent political shift toward egalitarianism and social democracy, the film finds a formerly progressive society heading back to patriarchy. Borden begins by showing isolated voices of resistance through two rival underground radio stations, the punky Isabel of Radio Ragazza and the soulful Honey of Phoenix Radio. Meanwhile, out on the street, the Women's Army works to organize the community for direct action via labor protests, vigilante squads and guerrilla tactics. The assassination of the Women's Army's charismatic black lesbian leader (at the hands of a government agency) catalyzes previously alienated feminist factions into taking collective action. Notably, the enemy oppressor isn't framed as "flesh and blood," but rather "the system." Arms are used to sabotage the disinforming media and to ensure that these revolutionaries' message of struggle is heard.
Shot without a script and with a cast of, for the most part, non-actors (plus bit parts by pre-fame Kathryn Bigelow and Eric Bogosian), Borden's film weaves documentary, neorealist and satirical elements into its episodic story, creating a whole that's more energetic than the sum of its occasionally slow-moving, disjointed parts. A propulsive soundtrack featuring the Staple Singers, the Slits and the recurring title track by the Red Krayola contributes to the film's vibrancy. With its origins in the arty post-punk scene of early '80s downtown New York, Born in Flames displays an audacious creativity within its limited financial means, akin to other micro-budgeted films of the era such as Downtown 81, Smithereens and Liquid Sky. However, in contrast to those films' jaded detachment, Born in Flames ignites an explosive feminist critique of social issues that continues to resonate in the present day.
Opens Friday, June 18, at the Burton Theatre, 3420 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-473-9238; burtontheatre.com.
Greg Baise writes about music for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].