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Sex Work, Feminism, and Revolution

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Lizzie Borden made two of the most important films of the 1980s. Her first film, Born in Flames, released in 1983, takes place in a near future after democratic socialist revolution in the United States. The film follows groups of radical women, mostly lesbians and women of color, who find that the new socialist government has not addressed the problems of patriarchy and racism, and decide to form a “women’s army” to struggle for a revolution within the revolution. Her next film, 1986’s Working Girls, is a vérité –style fictional look inside the life of women working in a Manhattan brothel. It still stands today as one of the most non-sensational, realistic, filmed depictions of sex work.

Thirty years later, her films are still required viewing for activists, and feel as bold and visionary as the day they were released. A feminist academic journal recently dedicated an entire issue to Born In Flames. Activists at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit dedicated a workshop to discussing the film. Kathleen Hanna, the singer for Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, and Julie Ruin recently called Born in Flames and Working Girls her favorite films, and told an interviewer that during the Riot Grrrl era, when her fans would ask for an autograph, she’d write, “Kathleen Hanna. Born In Flames.”

Borden is not afraid to be called a feminist, but like the women in her films, she is uncomfortable with what she sees as middle class white feminism. The characters in Born in Flames embrace a class and race-conscious revolutionary feminism more inspired by the Combahee River Collective than Ms. Magazine.

Lizzie Borden lives in Los Angeles, and is planning her next project. Below are excerpts, edited for style and length, from a conversation about race, feminism, filmmaking, and revolution.

Lizzie Borden: I became a filmmaker kind of by accident. I came to New York because I wanted to be a painter.  That was my grand ambition.  I loved art and New York was the place I hitchhiked to when I was at Wellesley when I was studying to be an art history major. I accidentally fell into the art world because one of my teachers recommended I write for Art Forum magazine and I got to know everybody.  I was hanging out at Max’s Kansas City with all the greatest artists of the time: Richard Serra, Robert Smithson, all of them. At the same time I was being radicalized by protests in the art world because women at the time were being kept out. I was writing about female artists, like Yvonne Rainer and Joan Jonas and Simone Forti, the dancers, the women in the performance art world.

I was becoming radicalized by the feminist movement. But I didn’t see any Black women in that movement, I didn’t see any women of color anywhere. I was being radicalized not only by that, but I was being radicalized by my own sexuality. I was turned off by the patriarchy and everything was coming together at one time.  So for me, Born in Flames was the expression of who I was at that time.  I was somebody who was rebelling against being a little girl in the eyes of all the artists I was seeing, all the titans of the art world, and I was living in a world where the feminism I was seeing was a kind of feminism that I didn’t really relate to. What did I have in common with Gloria Steinem?  Nothing.

One film definitely did influence me in making Born in Flames, and that’s Battle of Algiers. Because it portrayed the idea that a revolution never ends – a revolution goes on and on. I wanted to go through that spectrum: you fight it with words, you fight it with journalism and finally you fight it through armed resistance. I always imagined the women (characters in Born in Flames) would be arrested and go to jail, and like the Battle of Algiers, there’d be another wave of women to take their places because that has to keep going, because it hasn’t changed. It hasn’t changed for women, it hasn’t changed for minorities.

That’s what I was exploring and film just happened to be the medium. And I wasn’t particularly conscious of it looking good.  In fact, the worse it looked, the better.  Because I wanted it to be grassroots. So I went into gay bars, I went into the street, and I found women and asked if they would be in this project.  And we created this together. It was improvised and then I would take what we had shot and I would create scenes from that that were scripted and we would shoot them and it would evolve over the next five years.

I shot Born in Flames on reversal. I would look at it, try not to scratch it, and edit it down and throw most of it away and then just make duplicates of what I wanted to save. And then I would edit it from that and then I would write sometimes a bit of a script, go back out, shoot that and create some sort of a story. There would be a demonstration so I would put my actors in it and film it. Or I would stage a demonstration like the secretary’s strike, that was a fake demonstration and real people would join in.  Real secretaries would be like “I’ll join in that.”

Many of the women in Born in Flames are non-actors. Some were just picked randomly in the street and just stuck with it, some dropped out.  I’d have to have people wearing hats because they cut their hair. Or they lost weight or gained weight or whatever.  Some of them were playing a version of themselves.  Adele played a version of herself.  And most of the women who played a version of themselves also wrote their own material.  Adele – her poetry, her music – she wrote it for the film.  She was playing a role that was a role for the movie but it was very much Adele. The woman who dies, she was somebody I found at the YMCA playing basketball.  She had no intention of being an actress, she was very awkward as an actress but I liked how she looked.  I was having a relationship with Honey, who is in the movie. Some of the men are actors.  Ron Vawter from the Wooster Group was in it.  Eric Bogosian was in it.

One of the huge assets I had was Flo Kennedy.  I’m not quite sure how I got to Flo Kennedy because she was the lawyer for Ms Magazine.  But she was the radical wing – she was really daring.  But she was very radical.  She said something wonderful in the film: “who would you rather see come through the door – one lion or five hundred mice?” Five hundred mice can do a lot of damage and destruction.  And that’s in some ways what I wanted the film to portray.

I always say there are two ways of making a film, inductive and deductive.  Working Girls was deductive because you have a script and you make it from a script whereas Born in Flames was inductive because it grew from the seed bank.  You know I had a piece of it and then from that it grew.

The idea for the film Working Girls comes from the montage of women’s work in Born in Flames, the sequence of women doing things with their hands, including the shot of a woman putting a condom on a man’s penis.  Several women who I knew during the course of making Born in Flames were sex workers. I was in an environment where sex work was intriguing to me and the idea of demystifying sex work became Working Girls. I thought, nobody really knows what middle class sex work is, and they have preconceptions about it. What I’d seen in the cinema were either women who were on the street who were seen as pathetic, giving blow jobs for five or ten dollars, or high class call girls. Both were romanticized in movies or reality. I’d never seen the humdrum existence of a brothel, to really show what the work was, and show that sex work is really not different from any work. If you decide that you want to spend eight hours renting your body because you don’t want to spend 40 hours renting your mind at Kinko’s or waitressing, that’s your choice.

Working Girls was more a film about work than it was about sex. Some people went into this movie thinking it was about sex. That actually derailed me as a filmmaker because a lot of people thought I was an erotic filmmaker, and those were the scripts I was offered. But this was meant to be the least erotic film you could ever see. You were meant to be a fly on the wall to see what women experienced about the men coming in. As opposed to the typical way you see a brothel shown in film, with the man’s point of view of the array of girls and you go, “Which one of the candies in the box do I get to have today?” It was the other way around.  Okay, here’s the guy.  And you get to see the way the women respond to the men; the ones who are respectful, the ones who aren’t.  And none of the women have perfect bodies and you see that too.

What I like to see are films that demystify things that have been misunderstood.  Class really interests me, and women on the edge. I did not go to film school. And I think if I had gone to film school, Born in Flames would have never happened because people, teachers, would have said you can’t do it this way.  Because you can’t start a movie with no script.  You can’t just start a movie with a concept.  And that’s how it started – It started with an idea.  It started with a premise. In my hands it became like a Molotov cocktail, because I really wanted to blow something up.

Jordan Flaherty is a filmmaker and journalist based in New Orleans. You can see more of his work at jordanflaherty.org.

Jordan Flaherty is a filmmaker and journalist based in New Orleans. You can see more of his work at jordanflaherty.org.

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