I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Discussing the decline of Latin civilization, I described artistic culture as rising like a secretion to the surface of a people, at first a symptom of plethora, the superabundance of health, then immediately hardening, calcifying, opposing any true contact of the mind with nature, concealing beneath the persistent appearance of life, the diminution of life, forming a rind in which the hindered spirit languishes, withers and dies. Finally, carrying my notion to its conclusion, I said that culture, born of life, ultimately kills life.
—THE IMMORALIST, Andre Gide
Betsy Sussler You have just completed a film (Born in Flames), which is fictitious in that it takes place in NYC ten years in the future after a revolution and yet is not only documentary in style, but uses the lives and personalities of its actresses as part of the script …
Lizzie Borden Yes, the film occurs in the future after a Social Democratic Cultural revolution. It was always to be a borderline between what is present and therefore documentary and what would be fiction, therefore science fiction. I didn’t want to make a conventional science fiction film because I wanted it to refer to the present. The reason for setting it after a social democratic revolution is that so many people think the Left will solve the problems of women and “minorities.” This certainly hasn’t happened in modern socialist democracies like France under Mitterand or even in the more “classical” left-wing governments. So the science fiction in the film is to posit this thought: what if the very ordinary oppression that women have been experiencing for generations finally became something that would force a group of women to become armed and take over the media in order to redirect meaning, reclaim the language. This is “science fiction” because I don’t believe it will happen. In fact, the film posits other things that would not be true—for example, that women would band together across racial lines before working with men of their own racial identity.
BS Men are acknowledged by proxy within the group as some of the women have children but their actual presence in the film is by and large relegated to that of figures of authority, newscasters, FBI agents …
LB I really wanted it to be like a Western, where men wouldn’t even be the issue.
BS Good and Evil are implicit to the Western and men are certainly on the side of Evil in your film.
LB Yes, as part of the authoritarian establishment. But I also included children because I didn’t want it to be a film just about women of a particular kind of sexual identification but more about women on the fringe of society … single mothers, any woman who is not wealthy, gay women, non-white women …
BS All of these women had participated alongside men in the revolution?
LB Yes, in the hopes that it would create an egalitarian society. The film takes place at the point where the government is obviously slipping back to something non-egalitarian.
BS Why would you imagine a culture that would slip back into oppression after a revolution? You could also have developed a fiction where there is no oppression, no slip back …
BS Why choose one fiction over another? I mean, I tend to agree that historically this has happened. And standard Marxist ideology still states that a people must forgo immediate ethnic and sexual struggles for the overall revolution which will purportedly alleviate …
LB And in fact never takes care of these struggles if it reproduces the same patriarchal structure. I also wanted to show the opportunism of a move that looks progressive but is just an opportunistic ploy to enable the society to recover a bit before women are forced back into ordinary, “pre-revolutionary” roles. And there’s always an excuse, like “we can’t give you total equality now because of the state of the economy.” This is similar to what happens during war—when women are needed they are elevated to the same economic position as men and then when they are not needed they are pushed back again. In the film, I wanted to show this on several levels. For example, the government passes wages for housework which in some frameworks might be considered a progressive idea but not if it cunningly forces women out of the workforce and back into the homes. And again, in the subplot of Adelaide going to the Sahara, which was to contrast between the women in the film and a culture where women are on the barricades fighting for territory. Even on this level of struggle women are still manipulated. They are used and afterward pushed back in various ways—the obvious such as lay-offs, and the subtle such as propaganda delivered through TV or magazine articles convincing women they really don’t want to work.
BS I want to ask you about the women in the film. Almost none of them are actors or writers. How did you develop the script with them?
LB It went two ways. There was no script to begin with and in many ways the characters evolved out of my working with each woman individually. Each woman played both herself and represented a certain aspect of feminism within the fiction of the film. I had to work very much in pieces for two reasons: first, I jumped in with no money and I had to shoot often just once a month. Second, since I wasn’t going to be working with actors, I wanted to work very closely with people and how they themselves speak, particularly the Black women. I worked differently with different people. Adele Bertei …
BS Who is a songwriter and a rock performer …
LB Yeah, wrote most of her speeches and I would revise them a little bit. For Honey, who had the Black radio station speeches in the film, I would write something and she would take it and turn it into her own language—in fact one of her speeches comes straight from Malcolm X but I switched over all the Black rights stuff to male/female stuff and then she put it into her own language because she speaks a little like Mohammed Ali, she rhymes everything.
BS What is her background?
LB When I met her, she called herself a singing evangelist. She came out of gospel and was a bit of a street person. She’d never been in a film before and it took her a long time to get used to the camera.
BS Adele seemed to be the voice-over, the songster as narrator.
LB Yes, she, like the chorus, played the devil’s advocate and represented an opportunistic, post-punk stance …
BS Her comment was that she put enough into the community through her music.
LB Yes, she represented the artist.
BS The economy of creativity.
LB And Honey represented Black culture. She was political, but intuitively political.
BS She was more human—the politics of everyday life. She was reacting to what was going on in front of her face.
LB Exactly. The Women’s Army was the conscious political group, community activists, racially mixed. Adelaide Norris, the Black leader who is killed, played a more educated self-conscious political person than Honey. Although in her case, this is not true at all in her real life. She’s a basketball player and a body builder. And then Kathy Bigelow, Becky Johnston, and Pat Murphy, the White newspaper editors represented something I come from—middle-class women who analyze everything, mediate their reality through language.
BS Flo Kennedy’s role in the film is synonymous with her life.
LB Yeah, she is a lawyer and was active in the Civil Rights Movement. She’s been right out there with all the women’s struggles, gay rights, prostitution, the ERA. She’s really about the media and she calls for boycotts every year or so. For me, Flo was the center of wisdom. I wanted the film to be cross generational, not just including people under 40 and over 25. The way I worked with her was that I knew what her stories were.
BS Her repertoire.
LB Yes, so I could say, “Okay, Flo, now tell this story.” That’s how I would focus her. See often there would be something that I would know someone would do, so I would set it up. The argument scene in the film, for example, between Honey and her friend who didn’t want to be in the Women’s Army. They had real conflicts about many things and I knew that this real opposition would come out when they argued.
BS Were all of these people personal friends of yours?
LB Not necessarily. Some were old friends but others I recruited. I sometimes stopped people on the street and asked them to be in the film. But before I could really work with them I would have to know them very well. Know what they could do. A lot of people didn’t work out.
BS Who did you start with?
LB First of all by working with Kathy and Becky and Pat who were friends and who helped formulate the overall idea of the film. They were originally to be more central characters, but after I met Adele and Honey and worked out the structure of the underground radio stations, the film changed directions and Kathy, Becky, and Pat became minor characters. There was an original script but a kind of “script” did develop through the course of shooting. Very often, after we shot a scene with a lot of improvisation, I would go through it, condense it and then re-do it, using the condensed scene as the script. The newscasts on the other hand, were tightly scripted and were shot toward the end of the film.
BS The newscasters were almost exclusively played by men. Do you think that the former method of improvising scenes with the actors to devise a script served to de-mythicize the role of hero(ine) or anti-hero(ine) for your female characters?
LB Yes, because the characters are presented not psychologically but rather through the political stances they represent. So much of the film is presenting to the viewer directly through various kinds of propaganda. The propaganda of the state, represented by the newscasters directly through the TV and the propaganda of the subcultures which is given you directly by the women who are running the underground radio stations. Basically what I wanted to present in the first half hour of the film was a mosaic, a sense of the world in fiction. The second part presented more of a narrative in which all the groups—the radio stations, the Women’s Army, the newspaper editors—begin to be entwined, and the third part of the film, hopefully operates as a dialectic between the first two parts as the women “act” on the outside world. This happens when they determine that they have to take over the media more and more aggressively. At the end of the film, after Adelaide is killed, the two underground radio stations have been destroyed. Adele and Honey band together in a new joint underground radio station at the same time as the Women’s Army is taking over the TV stations and making more and more real the possibility of armed violence. The last shot in the film, of the transmission tower of the World Trade Center blowing up was not meant as an advocation of violence, but as a big question mark. The impetus toward presenting violence as something to talk about came out of my frustration with what’s happened to the women’s movement and to feminism. It seemed that every political person I knew was becoming more and more cynical and hopeless … How could you not be when you see people working for an issue for 20 years that is then wiped away in a second by a conservative government. Not just women but Blacks fighting for affirmative action. As a result of this cynicism people have begun to separate and become more involved with expressing themselves individually.
BS That’s also necessary.
LB Yes, to a certain degree. And yet I found that women of different races and classes have been very alienated from each other. How many Black women for example do you come in contact with? So for me it was about a fiction in which all these different subgroups were brought together.
S I think one of the problems people have with the film is that it brings up old questions no one has been able to resolve. And people are looking for answers, so they get frustrated with their own impotence. This is exacerbated by the use of ’60s rhetoric—but rhetoric can still contain meaning and these questions still need to be asked.
LB The possible answers, even the focus of the questions not just about Feminism but the politics of race themselves, change as the culture changes. I think it’s important to keep asking the questions even if there will never be answers. I mean politics of race on a cultural level as well. For example, look at this whole controversy with MTV and the Blacks and the Whites and who is on MTV. This is a crucial issue—what beat counts, what beat means what, what people dance to what beat. In the film you hear radio and television and you don’t have to pay attention to what is said. Each station is humming its propaganda from a very specific cultural and political viewpoint so what I wanted to do was mesh everything so that it all seemed like music.
BS When we walked out of the screening Liza [Béar] turned to me and said, “You know, it’s like an off-off Broadway musical.”
LB Oh, that’s fabulous. But I was using the music, the beat, as a way of getting to know the other where the other is not male but Black. I wanted to present women working together interracially without ever talking about race as an issue …
BS You also took the sex out of sexuality.
LB That’s the thing that bothers me about the whole gay movement—everything has to rotate around sexuality. Do you sleep with men? And so many gay films are about frustrated love making. I didn’t want the film to be about sexuality or to make sexuality the issue … whether women in the film had boyfriends or girlfriends, This begins to be too self-conscious: a sexual identification around which all argument begins and ends. If homosexuality is important, it’s in seeing the world as a whole in a different way. The same thing with race—I didn’t want racial identity to be the basis for all discussion but to just assume a position of trust between Black and White women. It’s really just getting to know people. The more people you know, the wider the world gets and I really do believe that that is the only way this country will become integrated, living next door to people who are different from you, which isn’t going to happen through any kind of film.
BS It doesn’t even happen in the subculture
LB That’s a point where the subculture isn’t advanced at all and reproduces the dominant lure. What I wanted to do in the film was present some images of something that was different— not a blueprint for revolution. I got a letter recently from a classical leftist in which he wrote a list of all the things that were wrong with the film such as ” … we’ve all been through this before. As a man I’m not threatened by this because we know that this doesn’t work. This is infantile politics, these women are being macho like men used to be macho …” He was taking the film too literally, as if I were saying this is what should happen … I’m not presenting a picture of what could or should happen, but posing the question of what it it would be like if a group of women started demanding equal representation; what if women decided they had to pick up arms to make their demands known; what if women started to work together across race and class lines; what if.
BS You see, I think this is where your film visually is much more visionary than the language allows it to be. When the characters speak, because there has been a time lag in the language of leftist politics, it’s still ’60s rhetoric. The Word in Judeo-Christian culture has power or authority over the Image. Which, I think, makes it harder for an audience to allow your image to subvert your text, which it does.
LB Perhaps that’s why I separated word and image to such an extent in the film. Like when one of the newspaper editors is giving a long treatise there is a sequence of fast images on the screen which say something else and perhaps the beat of a music track too. I wanted to create a situation where the words, the walls of words used by everyone in the film, were broken through, into action but not to make a film that was anti-language. I also wanted to make a film that different audiences could relate to on different levels—if they wanted to ignore the language they could.
BS How do you feel about the criticism that the film is against socialism?
LB It’s not anti-socialist at all. It criticizes an opportunistic manifestation of a government that calls itself a Social Democracy but which has not restructured at all its capitalist underpinnings. The women in the film see themselves as the true socialists because they had such high hopes for the culture and begin to fight when it slips back. That’s another point—a socialism can never be a thing, it always has to be a process, toward egalitarianism, because the minute it stops moving forward it slips back. Actually some people have criticized the film as a manifestation of ’60s mentality. For me, it’s about reformulating some of the same questions because everyone has become so cynical and hopeless now that all desire to act is gone. Everyone knows nothing will work. But even if the questions are old, they must be renewed to mean something different today. It’s about reformulating desire—rekindling hope.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee