By Thom Bennett
The term “independent film” has been forced onto far too many titles over the years, sometimes to lend a film credibility or as a defense of filmmaking incompetence. Another term overused by film critics the world ’round is “seminal.” So there are any number of “seminal independent films” and filmmakers that have garnered accolades while others that truly deserve them are forgotten to time. Lizzie Borden’s 1983 film “Born in Flames,” finally released on DVD June 13th, is legitimately both seminal and independent, an example of 80s New York guerilla filmmaking at its finest.
People have been making underground, experimental and self-financed films since the beginnings of cinema. Before being indie was a genre or a fashion statement, there was a substantial movement of underground and self-described “transgressive” filmmakers that arose out of New York in the late 70s and early 80s. Prominent in this movement were Richard Kern, Nick Zedd, Beth B, Amos Poe and Lizzie Borden, among others. Their films, while varied in style and approach, dealt in no uncertain terms with the political and social concerns of the day and served as a stark contrast to the American ideals of the 80s.
“Born in Flames” is set ten years in the future, after a second American Revolution. Societal ills have allegedly been eliminated and the world is a far better place. When the founder of the Women’s Army, Adelaide Norris, is killed, factions of women of divergent race, class and sexuality rise up to tear down the façade that has been created in an effort to achieve actual justice and freedom for all.
The film is a mixed bag of filmed interviews, footage of pre-gentrified, early 80s New York City, feminist manifestos and a loose narrative that serves mainly to hold the whole thing together. The documentary look and feel of the film, a result of the simple economics of guerrilla filmmaking more than any grand aesthetic, give the films an immediacy and intensity that cannot be faked. “Born in Flames” is an angry, funny, provocative statement that deserves a place of prominence in any serious assessment of American independent film.
Chalk it up to the visionary genius of Lizzie Borden or the eerie similarities between the then Reagan, now Bush-era United States, but “Born in Flames” holds up remarkably well. Hopefully the DVD release will help it find a larger audience and inspire a new generation of filmmakers.