Lizzie Borden

Born in Flames

Thirty-five years later, Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames remains a stirring call to arms against racist and sexist governmental oppression. The labor issues explored in Working Girls, her 1986 film about middle-class sex workers in Manhattan, also retain a contemporary urgency.

“What’s so bizarre is that I made both of these films not expecting them to be relevant today, and they’re both relevant in very different ways,” Borden told Film Comment by phone from her home in West Hollywood. “Born in Flames because women’s rights have taken a step back, with Roe v. Wade being in danger, with immigration and the ERA not even having passed. Working Girls because of women in the sex industry fighting SESTA, and [the shutdown of] Backpage . . . It’s shocking to me that we are in this situation.”

Borden revisits her earlier work to prompt this sort of dialogue: she regularly screens Working Girls—which screens July 17 and 19 as part of Quad Cinema’s series “The New York Woman”—at benefits to combat SESTA, and enjoys discussing the recently restored Born in Flames with younger, politicized audiences. Artistic activism in the 1980s took place in a markedly different landscape.

“Back then, a scrappy filmmaker was never, or I wasn’t, thinking of electoral politics at all; it was outside the boundaries. These were downtown art movies, it was Reagan. We never thought of trying to work to change the makeup of the Senate, or anything like that. But now that seems to be the only thing possible,” Borden said.

Although the political rage of Born in Flames was directed both nationally and globally, Borden also concentrated her energies locally. She made it a priority to diversify her cast and make her depiction of feminism intersectional, before the term was popularized.

“One of the problematic aspects of Born in Flames is that it’s still not reaching a lot of the women that I originally wanted it to reach, which is black women,” Borden said. “They’ve mostly seen it on YouTube, or it’s been pirated. I have more of an anarchist sense of [film exhibition], which drives most distributors crazy. I knew there was an audience who would only see it that way; they weren’t going to rent a copy from the distributor or buy a DVD.”

Beyond distribution, Borden emphasizes the importance of restructuring filmmaking practices on set. “I’ve been drawn to what Jill Soloway has done [not only] because of subject matter, but also trying to radicalize process,” she specified. “The way that she puts film sets together, and her method of doing so. It’s also about who sees the films: how does it have an effect on people in its long run?”

“The idea of changing the apparatus is so important right now, so that there are women who are in front of and behind the camera,” Borden added. “I think a lot of women downtown were working that way because it seemed natural to do so. It seemed like these were female visions, so of course it was going to be predominantly women shooting it. It would naturally be a female apparatus. There was no conscious notion of gaze structure, or anything—it was the gaze. It was the take on the world.”

With Working Girls, these ideas directly influenced the aesthetic approach. “It was a female DP, so we decided that the point of view had to contain—we didn’t use the word gaze back then—Molly’s gaze in the window, or somehow her awareness of her nudity,” she explained. “She had to be conscious of that. If she was aware of it, then we wouldn’t be objectifying her.”

Borden is currently working on a collection of firsthand stories about stripping, whose contributors will include Cookie Mueller, Chris Kraus, and Kathy Acker. For several years, she has also been working to finance a long-gestating film about abortion.

“I think the reason why I want to do a film about an abortion is that it really comes down to choice, and how it’s her choice,” Borden continued. “I came out of Born in Flames very militant about every kind of choice.”

Films on the Horizon

Greta Gerwig. Photo by Mettie Ostrowski.

Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro) is planning a film on the life of revolutionary abolitionist John Brown. Last winter, Peck and his frequent co-writer Pascal Bonitzer finished work on a screenplay about postcolonialist pioneer Frantz Fanon . . . Céline Sciamma (Girlhood) begins filming her fourth feature, Portrait de la jeune fille en feu [Portrait of a Young Girl on Fire], this October with Adèle Haenel, who also starred in Sciamma’s Water Lilies. Set on a remote island in 18th-century Brittany, Sciamma’s tale of a commissioned artist painting a young bride’s portrait will explore “the long-term resonance of past love within us, which goes some way to compensating its loss”… Greta Gerwig pivots from the Bush-era Sacramento of Lady Bird into an adaptation of Little Women, set to star Saoirse Ronan, Lady Macbeth’s Florence Pugh, Emma Stone, Timothée Chalamet, and Meryl Streep.


Ryuichi Sakamoto

✸ On his website, J. Hoberman reflects on Jonas Mekas in light of Michael Casper’s New York Review of Books article, which questioned Mekas’s account of his time in Nazi-occupied Lithuania during World War II.

✸ With the closing of Magno Screening Room last Wednesday, New York lost a press screening institution. Read one fond farewell in The New York Times by Ben Kenigsberg.

✸ Stream an hour-long mix curated by Ryuichi Sakamoto for NTS Radio; as he puts it at the beginning of the broadcast, “I chose what I normally listen to—they’re pretty dark, but not too dark. I hope you enjoy.”

✸ Nathaniel Dorsky shares stories on his website about films he worked on as an editor or camera operator, as well as his encounters with Martin Scorsese and Allen Ginsberg in the ’70s.

✸ AMC and Alamo Drafthouse have announced monthly subscription plans to combat MoviePass. Both models allow moviegoers to reserve seats in advance, and also permit multiple viewings on the same day. Despite the decline in MoviePass’s parent company’s stock, CEO Theodore Farnsworth remained optimistic about its financial prospects in this June interview with Screen Rant.

✸ Kanopy has added the Early Works of Cheryl Dunye to their streaming library, accessible for free with a public library card in New York and elsewhere.