Lizzie Borden: Guest of Honor at 45th Créteil Film de Femmes

Born in Flames (1983) © Lizzie Borden

Lizzie Borden was guest of honor at the 45th Créteil Films de Femmes festival held March 24 to April 2. Her work was enthusiastically received by a new generation of cinéastes with seminars on her trilogy of films: Regrouping (1976), Born in Flames (1983) and Working Girls (1986). Born in Flames’ relevance today is illustrated by its intersectionality of race, gender and class that debunks the myth that feminism was a 'white women's movement'. Featuring Kathryn Bigelow as a member of a youth socialist feminist journal, the setting is 10 years after the Socialist Revolution in the US. Borden took seven years to make the film and acquire funding. The brilliant editing of Born in Flames resembles the 'choreographic' editing of Borden’s first film, the documentary Regrouping made in 1976 on four artists in a women’s group. During the course of the film project, Borden introduced other women into the original group and created an experimental film on the practices of collectivity. Forty years later she released the original film digitally restored by Anthology Film Archives. Borden said you could watch the film, even fall asleep, reawaken, and become immersed in the film's creative matrix. That is exactly what happens watching Born in Flames 40 years after it’s making which was also digitized by Anthology Film Archives. 
Here now is Lizzie Borden in an exclusive interview with Movie Magazine talking about her evolution as a filmmaker and her film Born in Flames.

Lizzie Borden: what does it mean for you to be a filmmaker. What made you aspire to this profession?

I started out in the art world and wanted to be a painter. I was sidetracked into becoming an art reviewer more than a critic by studying art history. However, I learned too much to be a painter because every time I tried to paint, I felt that I was being derivative. I became supremely self-conscious. What I was attracted to in painting was a lot of women's work in galleries and short films. At the same time I was radicalized by the 2nd wave of the second wave - not the second wave itself because that was in the 60s. I realized that women's work was seen as not as important as men's work, as it wasn't paid as much. Men didn't consider it as serious as men's work and it¬¬ wasn't represented much in galleries or in museums.

Who were your filmmaking models?

I was seeing a lot of films within the context of the art world where films were shown. I didn't go to film school; I went to art school. Films were shown downtown [NYC], like retrospectives of Godard or Fassbinder and Cassavetes. It wasn't that I particularly saw women's film. The fourth wall was broken by Godard but it wasn't his classic films that turned everyone on. It was sometimes his essay films that were exciting to me because I could see that you could write an essay, which is what I was doing for magazines, and also tell a story.

What were the artistic/political values you wanted to transmit when you started to make films?

When I made Regrouping , I was really excited by breaking the 4th wall. I was trying to do a straight-line documentary of women who were doing something interesting in terms of feminism in the art world and it became an experimental film in which I was filming and editing. This taught me a lot about technique. Writing an essay on an editing machine got me into filmmaking and it was a different form of writing for me. Political analysis made me realize that these were all middle-class white women. Groups in the art world in Art Language led me to a fascination with Marxism and the idea of the woman question. And the question of what would happen if there was a kind of socialist cultural revolution, and the women were all put to the side. I began to think of a film where that was the premise and also include nonwhite women because downtown in New York there were very few. But I didn't want to get too involved in readings of philosophy because that's what killed art for me and stymied me in terms of becoming a painter. I didn't want to study a lot of film theory, so I stopped studying until afterwards.

How did you work making your films?

I really didn't understand how to structure a screenplay when I made my three films Born in Flames, Working Girls and Regrouping. I had total control of the means of production. I could do everything pretty much although I had other people shoot. With Working Girls there were other people working on it professionally but I edited them up to a point and had other editors and their mixers. The was no sense of an intellectual approach beforehand. Afterwards is when I learned screenplay structure and started reading about film, so I don't feel as if I had a film education.

What kinds of films influenced your three films?

I did love films like the Battle of Algiers. I was obsessed with and took elements from that. I stole a shot from Klute for Working Girls that came out of a more political feminist impulse.

Quick question: what part of Klute did you take a shot from - I just saw that again recently?

When Molly looks at her watch when she's with a client. She takes a quick glance over the client’s shoulder and looks at her watch like Bree Daniels does in Klute. It’s the same thing. In the middle of the scene, she looks over her shoulder at a watch. It is a direct steal.

Despite the kind of background that filmmakers have coming out of film school or whatever kind of preparation one does to be a filmmaker, your experience is still what a lot of people have: trying different artistic formats and then choosing to focus on making a film - and it's not easy to make a film. So, it's interesting to hear what you had to say about the theoretical backgrounds like Marxism and feminism as it was in the 80s.

At the Créteil seminar panel the question what stood out to me was kind of an unbelievable question by a young woman who said that she wanted to know why there were so many black women in the film that were activists. Do you remember that question?

I don't. But it's actually very interesting because I wonder if that was a uniquely European question because it was after having done Regrouping about white women in a group. Most of the women talking were white and most of the ancillary women were white. That was the reason I made Born in Flames. I wanted an intersectional approach, which meant if there was a Social Democratic cultural revolution and women were put into second place, who would the women be that would most suffer? It would be women of color and probably lesbians. These days women of color and trans women/people would be the ones to suffer in terms of being given jobs, social services, and things like that. In Born in Flames these women wanted not only equal pay but they wanted traditional male jobs. How we support this was the very point of making Born in Flames. Also, every person created her own character and there were white characters and black characters together all having their own voices simultaneously. Flo Kennedy is in it, and she's so clearly speaking her own language and has great authority.

I thought that the question at the seminar was something quite different. It was why were there black women to begin with that were activists. It was like she didn't have a sense of history - of the history of colonialism in France with so many people of color. It was the very question that was always asked about Maya Deren --what do you feel about a white woman going into Haiti and making a film? That question is often asked. You say that there are films that mirror today's contemporary situation but at the time you made your film there wasn't any film like that. Would you agree?

I haven't seen anything like it which is why I made it. I did watch films or newsreels about the Black Panthers which seemed very heavily dominated by men. I did see films about German so-called terrorists, and I didn't want these women to seem to be terrorists. And I didn't see anything like this in particular, but yes, you're right I hadn't seen anything like this in this style. There was the Combahee River Collective, but they weren't doing films - they were a group that stood in between the Black Panthers and the feminists. They were a lesbian group that created their own stance because they felt that neither the white feminists nor the Black activists represented their interests. So, in some ways this was inspired more by an actual group of women, a political group, than anything. It was more about trying to create something in the absence of anything else. I started with the premise of not knowing where I was going to end up five years later. I didn't know many Black women, as I've said many times. I had to look for them. I met Honey [Black radio host in film] through a woman who I met at a gay bar. I met Jeannie Satterfield who played Adelaide at the YMCA - she was playing basketball. Flo Kennedy-- somebody introduced me to her. A lot of Black women I met wouldn't stay for the whole movie so assembling the cast for this movie took a long time and the ones who stayed were a miracle. I really didn't think it was done. even when it was invited to the Berlin Film Festival because I really thought it needed more Latinas. It needed some Asian women. I thought I should have tried harder, but I knew that it would take me another five years to do this, and so ended the movie.

© 2023 - Moira Jean Sullivan - Date: 06/21/23
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