Monday, July 2, 2012

Born in Flames (1983)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from netflix.

Let's list a few things I like: strong women, lo-fi rock music, feminisms, dystopian science-fiction, the 1980's, lady directors, independent film. Now let's find a movie that combines all of those things! No, it's not Tank Girl (though that comes close), it's Born in Flames! Lizzie Borden's documentary-style feminist sci-fi film had been on my list for a while, and while it wasn't what I expected I still enjoyed it. Set in a not-so-distant future after a socialist revolution that restructured American government, the story follows Adelaide Norris (Jean Satterfield), a young social activist, as she attempts to unite various feminist factions for her cause. Her own group, the Women's Army, is primarily composed of lesbians and women of color who feel the revolution left them out. A shady government organization keeps tabs on Adelaide's movements as she starts to arm her group, while two feminist radio dj's (Honey and Adele Bertei) provide ongoing commentary and exposition.

Filmed in a gritty, low-fi style with a intimate hand-held camerawork and a cast of non-actors, Born in Flames is distinctive in its vision while remaining tied to its early-80s production time in some ways. The plot is scattershot, at times confusing for the wealth of characters and noncohesive narrative, but the ideas are so strong that it holds together. I loved the rhetoric posed by the competing dj's and female journalists (a group that includes Kathryn Bigelow in a rare acting role!) and the concept of a national revolution that is considered successful despite its inability to address certain issues. Those who participated in the revolution and are well-placed in the "party" believe that any problems and inequalities that still exist need to be put on the backburner while the country adjusts itself. Younger rebels like Adelaide aren't convinced that problems facing women, non-white people, and the poor will be given attention if the government ignores them now. The film presents numerous social issues in all their complexities and ambiguities, but doesn't resort to preachiness.

Borden doesn't pretend she has all the answers here. She presents multiple sides of these arguments and focuses on the notion of unity through common cause, but it's unclear whether the more violent means that the Women's Army resorts to are considered positive action. This is radical feminism distilled into an episodic low-budget indie that keeps viewers' interest through a charismatic cast, thoughtful dialogue, and a kickass soundtrack of lady rockers. The Red Crayola's titular "Born in Flames" is used frequently, and sets the tone perfectly. I can't stop listening to it, just like I can't stop thinking about this film. The sexual, economic, and racial issues raised by the characters are still decidedly relevant today, and will likely continue to resound for the foreseeable future.

I'll admit that I was hoping it would be more sci-fi-y, though, just because it's rare for a female-centric science-fiction film.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: I guess another violent sci-fi dystopia would be good, like Death Race 2000 or Strange Days. I don't know of many other lady-centric ones, but Strange Days has the Bigelow connection!

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