Cult Cinema: Born in Flames (1983) - Reviewed

In the recently restored and re-released feminist cult classic Born in Flames, director Lizzie Borden’s do-it-yourself dystopian, radical and still incendiary docudrama plays less like the Jack Hill directed tales of female empowerment, instead finding itself in league with the infinitely more talented but equally incendiary mockumentary filmmaker Peter Watkins.  Dubbed by Borden herself as a science fiction fable, the film is a defiant call to arms that dares to advocate terrorism as a means to combat misogyny including but not limited to a now deeply unsettling image of a bomb exploding atop the World Trade Center.  Concerning a “future” still dogged by a kind of fascist regime after a socialist revolution failed to change much for the populous, the film concerns an underground pirate radio operation dead set on combatting the totalitarian government oppressive women.   

As a historical artifact ala Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song!, it remains an important chapter in film history.  As is, Born in Flames is a mishmash of ideological monologues directed at the camera interspersed with cinema verite footage of it’s aptly named Women’s Army occasionally rescuing helpless women from rapists while mostly spouting off an endless torrent of anti-male rhetoric via pirate radio.  Some of it is startlingly relevant in today’s political climate with radical third wave feminism at the forefront of college campuses.  Most of the rest is simply redundant with many of the same punk rock songs on the soundtrack repeated ad nauseam and the same anarchic ideologies recited as gospel.  

Despite the anti-Patriarchal leanings which still hold just as true for the director today as it did for her when she completed the film in 1983, I found myself drawn into the fractured narrative initially before it became a bit repetitive around the second act.  The production itself wears the indie roots on it’s sleeve, shot over the course of five years whenever Lizzie Borden could raise enough money to shoot a scene or two.  Less of a commercial enterprise than a homemade labor of love, Born in Flames wants to be in league with the aforementioned Watkins and even Costa-Gavras’ incendiary political dialogue but unfortunately doesn’t in summation say much more than ‘men are bad’.  While I don’t mind hearing the other oppressed voice having a chance to speak, Born in Flames gives the viewer a heavier dose of radical feminism than they’re likely to find at collegiate events, boring on for nearly ninety minutes without taking a breath.

What I liked about Born in Flames was the editing, cutting together a stream of monologues, documentary newsreel footage and just enough voiceover narration to create a timeline free of the constraints of conventional plotline.  Though it tends to meander and even drag at times with some shots that simply run on with little blocking or choreography behind it, there’s an identifiable personality behind the anarchy and the lead performance by Honey as a black lesbian ‘Phoenix Radio’ operator keeps the abstract narrative from getting too far off track.  That said, for my incendiary political films, I’ll stick with Watkins and Gavras for having more to say about their topics.  My friendly recommendation also is to seek out the works of Jack Hill, whose own The Swinging Cheerleaders and Pam Grier collaborations are among the most staunchly feminist works out there not made by a woman.  As far as hearing an extended dialogue on how 'men are s**t', I'll stick to Frank T.J. Mackey's self-help program in Magnolia, thank you very much!   


- Andrew Kotwicki