Born in Flames, Lizzie Borden
Erika Balsom


Five Hundred Mice, or, "Born in Flames"

“If you were the army, the school, the head of the health institutions, and the head of the government, and all of you had guns, which would you rather see come through the door: one lion, unified, or five hundred mice?” This thought experiment is proposed by Zella Wylie, a legal advisor to the Women’s Army (played by real-life lawyer and activist Florynce Kennedy), a little more than half an hour into Born in Flames (1983). Lizzie Borden’s second feature film is punkish and prescient. Propelled by a seductive musical soundtrack, it depicts a world that is very much like our own — or perhaps one that is a little better, since it takes place ten years after a social-democratic War of Liberation. Despite the success of this peaceful revolution, all is not well. The government happily congratulates itself on its progressiveness, but the promise of emancipation has been unevenly kept, if kept at all. Unrest among women — and especially among queer, Black women — is intensifying. Espousing an intersectional feminist politics, the Women’s Army begins to explore the possibility of taking direct action against the state, lobbying demands that have lost none of their urgency some forty years after the film’s release: labour rights, affordable housing, reproductive justice, and an end to racism, homophobia, and gender-based violence. 

Will they act as one lion or as five hundred mice? Zella’s comment comes as a response to Honey, a radio DJ who has returned from a protest march, dismayed at the separation she witnessed between the three thousand women who attended. How will they effect change if they are unable to rally around a common cause or decide on a shared strategy? Zella sees things differently: “Five hundred mice,” she says, “can do a lot of damage and disruption.” A single, heroic body possesses a formidable force, but when compared to the unruly swarm, it is easier to identify, to block, to shoot down. What’s more, the forging of unity can be coercive and oppressive, negating the difference and antagonism that necessarily inhere in any group formation. 

Honey is easily the more central character in Born in Flames, but the position Borden adopts is closer to Zella’s. The film possesses none of univocity so often found in works of militant cinema. Like Borden’s first feature, Regrouping (1976), an experimental documentary that explores the vicissitudes of belonging within a women’s consciousness raising group, Born in Flames attends to the fissures that exist within feminist movements, dispensing entirely with romantic notions of cosy sisterhood while never giving up on the possibility of collective action. Borden knows that the field of struggle is considerably more complicated than a simple “us versus them.” With humour and nuance, she foregrounds the disagreements that exist between factions that are ostensibly on the same side, and underlines how feminist commitments are inflected by race, sexuality, and class. 

Regrouping stages an interest in conflict and contradiction not only at the level of content, but also at the level of form, adopting a disjunctive montage and multiple, often overlapping soundtracks that run roughshod over the image, with no regard for synchronization. Although less overtly avant-garde in its audiovisual strategies, Born in Flames is equally keen to turn its back on the lion of aesthetic unity. Borden revels in fragmentariness and juxtaposition, bringing street scenes bursting with documentary vitality together with overtly scripted sequences. She weaves a tapestry of different image textures, from 16mm film to television broadcasts, surveillance footage, and slide shows. (One of the film’s great themes is the role of the media in insurgency and counterinsurgency.) Like the coalition that eventually forms to orchestrate the spectacular act of violence at its conclusion, Born in Flames is made up of jagged parts that hold together in the interest of a shared purpose, without any pretence to smooth sameness.

In her review of the film, published in the New York Times upon its initial release, Janet Maslin writes that Borden “presents a variety of radical feminist ideas, without much attention to the narrative that contains them” and allows little time for “ordinary exposition.” For Maslin, this quality — which does indeed characterize the film — is presumably a fault. Yet it can only be seen as such if Born in Flames is judged against the kind of leonine storytelling favoured by Hollywood, which was never Borden’s aim. The clash of perspectives and styles the film choreographs, as well as its relative lack of interest in conventional plotting, are part of its thrilling commitment to a murine politics. Let the five hundred mice run wild in all directions, scurrying forward even as some drop away, evading the traps that have been set for them, storming the gates of the status quo. 

Batalha Centro de Cinema

Praça da Batalha, 47
4000-101 Porto

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