From the ashes

Pub date June 12, 2007
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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"They may label you, try to classify you, and even call you a crazy bitch — but don’t flinch, just let them," Honey of Radio Phoenix says to the women of New York City after her black feminist–run station gets bombed by government agents, after her comrade in arms is found dead in her jail cell, as the fireworks are about to go off in a certain tall tower in Lower Manhattan.

There’s no denying the evocative weight of that last image these days. But Lizzie Borden’s 1983 Born in Flames — and in particular, advice like Honey’s — comes to mind every time I watch a film in which grrrls are running riot in the street or on the radio or in the clubs, a slowly but surely growing subgenre as the decades pass (at least in my home video collection).

In the thin line of plot running patchily through Borden’s vérité-style feature, surfacing at the Roxie Film Center on June 22, the War of Liberation has brought about a single-party system run by Socialist Democrats, the postrevolution economy is in the toilet, and working women are bearing the brunt of the mass layoffs that have ensued. Adelaide Norris (Jean Satterfield) is the leader of the Women’s Army, a loose circle of radical lesbian feminists — or vigilantes, as they’re called on the nightly news — who, among other pursuits, patrol the streets on bicycles with whistles at the ready in search of men behaving badly.

Norris begins to see their basically peaceful efforts to gain equality going nowhere and becomes convinced that armed struggle is the only way to get the government’s attention and force a change. When she dies in jail, the news sends a charge through the gathering underground, bringing together disconnected feminist forces that have long kept their distance. Borden’s aim, perhaps unrealistic and perhaps naive, is to present an expanding patchwork of radicalized women unified across lines of class and race in the face of overarching sexism.

You couldn’t call the women of Born in Flames riot grrrls with a straight face. The spiky commentators at Radio Regazza — trash-talking, white punk-rock counterparts to Radio Phoenix’s Honey — look familiar, but this is the second wave of feminism personified (evidenced, for one, by an unquestioning opposition to sex work). But if Borden’s point in setting Born in Flames in a future United States run by socialists, of all things, is that nothing much has changed for the second sex postrevolution, there’s a parallel in watching as a new clan of young women is born in flames onscreen every few years.

Such latter-day films — Kristine Peterson’s 1997 Slaves to the Underground, documenting the Portland DIY scene of the early ’90s; Barbara Teufel’s 2003 part-fiction, part-doc Gallant Girls, set amid the direct-action anarchopunks of late-’80s Berlin — regularly surface at the Frameline fest. And this year adds a couple more to the pack: closing night’s Itty Bitty Titty Committee, a tale of teen radicalization by But I’m a Cheerleader‘s Jamie Babbit (who cites Born in Flames as an inspiration), and the Spanish film El Calentito, by Chus Gutiérrez, set in 1981 on the eve of a coup d’état by Fascist vestiges of Francisco Franco’s gang. These, as well as Flames contemporaries Times Square (Allan Moyle, 1980) and Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (Lou Adler, 1981), are filled with rude girls hijacking the radio waves or the stage, flinging out slogans and manifestos, and screaming bloody murder. Though only Borden’s future radicals are prepared to cause it. *

BORN IN FLAMES (Lizzie Borden, US, 1983). June 22, 10:30 p.m., Roxie