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Lizzie Borden: Pioneering feminist narratives and the power of cinema

Lizzie Borden and Jennifer Brier at Conversations at the Edge event.

Regarded as a trailblazing feminist filmmaker within the film industry, Lizzie Borden’s name is associated with stories that subvert social mores and motivate action. Over the course of her decades-long career, Borden’s dedication to social justice, diversity and inclusion has made her a prominent voice in the field.

Born and raised in Seattle, Borden’s passion for storytelling was ignited at a young age. She was deeply influenced by the works of pioneering filmmakers such as Agnès Varda, Jane C and Jean Luc Goddard, whose bold and unapologetic approach to storytelling resonated with her.

Born in Flames, Borden’s breakthrough picture, remains a seminal work in feminist cinema. The 1983 film examines issues of sexuality, racism, gender and class through the lens of a fictitious American uprising. The film was a labor of love for Borden, who overcame many obstacles to achieve her vision on a limited budget and win praise from critics. Born in Flames went on to become a cult classic, influencing a number of directors to tackle related subjects in their own works.

Borden has long been a strong supporter of inclusion and diversity in the film business. She has dedicated her career to advancing the status of marginalized voices in cinema and uses her platform to spread awareness about significant social issues, including advocacy for reproductive justice and women’s rights.

From her early inspirations to her groundbreaking movies like Born in Flames and Working Girls, Borden’s work demonstrates not just her creative talent but also her steadfast commitment to elevating the voices of those who are marginalized, underscoring the significance of her efforts in advancing diversity and inclusion in the arts.

In a conversation with the UIC Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement (ODEE), Borden provided insight about her journey as a filmmaker, the challenges she has faced and the legacy she hopes to leave behind.

ODEE: How do you approach the complex and nuanced intersections of identities in your storytelling? What challenges have you faced in bringing these nuanced narratives to the screen?

Borden: When I started making Born in Flames in the late ’70s, the word “intersectionality” had not been coined. But I came from the art world, which is kind of all white and middle class, and Born in Flames was a reaction against that. I knew I wanted to work with black women and women from all classes. Also, feminism was very radicalized by not the second wave, which was in the ’60s, but the second wave of the second wave. So it was really a reaction against what was happening. In the art world, women were treated as second-class citizens. They weren’t making as much money from their art, they weren’t respected as much and the museums did not collect their work. I was making Born in Flames only when I had enough money to shoot a shot–one day of shooting was $200 so I made it gradually. I didn’t know any black women. I had to find them. The challenge was just to keep it going, to find women who stuck with me, who would trust me, who would work with me. That was a five-year process. Later on [with Working Girls], it was how to cast working girls because the sex industry was not sexy. It was not erotic. But there was nudity. So the challenges were different for each film. Some of the challenges came from the politics of the time, some came from outside of the films and some were just about keeping a film going. Now, the challenges are very much from the patriarchy.

ODEE: What circumstances and motivations fueled your determination to make Born in Flames, and what kept you motivated throughout the process?

Borden: It actually was a reaction against what happened with my first film, Regrouping, which was being shot as well. Regrouping was about a feminist group of women in the art world from the School of Visual Arts. They were white women, but I couldn’t break through to what was really making them work as a group. I fell out with them, and they wouldn’t allow me to see what made them work. Then I became an outsider, which led me to critique myself from within. It became a study about group dynamics. I wanted to have a more creative and collaborative relationship with women. At that point, I was questioning my sexuality and wanting to break away from the all-white, all-middle class existence downtown [in New York City]. It was about challenging the male domination of the art world. Downtown was below 14th Street, and there were maybe three black artists, none of whom I knew. I wanted to explore the woman question, as discussed in Marxist texts, and address issues faced by women of color, lesbians and transgender individuals. I didn’t know any black women, so I had to go to lesbian bars and the YMCA to find participants. For two years, I met with many women in my loft, discussing their most important issues. Eventually, a story emerged. The relative of one of the women brought back footage of women marching, which became pivotal to the film. I edited every day in my loft, using an editing machine I rented out to others. The film came together through montage, layering sound and music to create a sense of anger and urgency. I was inspired by Battle of Algiers and Godard, creating films that were both story and essay. Regrouping taught me to layer sound, which I expanded on in Born in Flames. I wanted people to come out of the film wanting to take action.

Working Girls was inspired by the need for a more contained and shorter project. It was about labor and women taking on traditionally male jobs, and the montages reflected various aspects of women’s labor. I shot these montages even during the years when I was just talking to women because I knew I wanted those elements in the film.

ODEE: Based on your experiences in the film industry, how have you observed the landscape change in terms of representation opportunities for women and marginalized groups, both in front of and behind the camera?

Borden: Progress has been slow, especially after movements like Black Lives Matter and initiatives like 5050 by 2020, which Joey Solloway, then Gil Solloway, tried to push through. However, in 2020, things regressed in terms of the promised percentage [of representation]. Hollywood has seen more women making films, including many women of color, but it’s still not enough. The progress has further backtracked, especially post-pandemic and post-strike. It’s still a slow climb up a hill, and this progress needs to be nurtured. It’s challenging, not just in Hollywood but also in countries like England and elsewhere, to secure financing for anything that is politically or artistically different. I work closely with women of color who face even more significant challenges than white women in getting their projects off the ground in television. I don’t work in TV, but I’ve learned from their experiences, and it’s clear that the struggle is still very real.

ODEE: Do you believe that filmmakers have a responsibility to reflect societal issues and engage audiences in a way that promotes a deeper awareness of diversity and equity issues?

Borden: I think filmmakers can approach this in many ways. I’m not sure if it’s a responsibility because filmmakers work in so many different ways. Diversity is incredibly important, and people are starting to recognize that. However, one of my favorite films from last year, Anatomy of a Fall, was brilliant but lacked diversity. I wonder if that was a societal issue, and I’m not sure how to understand it in that context. I admire films that deal with diversity and societal issues. There was also a small film, 1001, about a black woman raising her son over time, which I found very impactful.

Regarding a filmmaker’s responsibility, I believe that bringing someone into a world and expanding their imagination is significant. For example, I love Jane Campion’s work, even though she rarely works with people of color. Her films expand my sense of what’s visually possible. I don’t think it’s her responsibility to do otherwise. I tend to love filmmakers who work with diverse casts now, but I don’t think I could make Born in Flames again. There are so many women of color making incendiary films today from all over the world, and they have the impulse, passion and need to do it. I sit back, watch and learn from them. It’s not my responsibility to dictate what people should be making. It’s about expanding the human experience in ways we didn’t know before. You can’t put rules on it, just like you can’t put rules on how you shoot the female body. What we get from a movie can be so mysterious that it can’t be understood with rules.

ODEE: Looking ahead, are there any specific themes or issues that you’re passionate about exploring in future projects?

Borden: Absolutely. I’ve been trying to set up a film for a long time now, set in the 50s about an abortionist who runs a movie theater showing forbidden films like Miracle of Milan and America, which were banned by the Legion of Decency because at that time the Catholic church refused to show them. It’s really difficult to cast it with an A-list actress but I’ve been wanting to do this for years. One of my major issues is choice because gradually every day it’s really becoming A Handmaid’s Tale world. That is an issue I’ve been kind of obsessed with. I believe we need to participate in the electoral process, but change is slow, so what do we do today and tomorrow about the women who need to get an abortion? I think there needs to be some kind of underground system for them to get it as well as the above-ground electoral system. Like with Born in Flames and similar movements, there needs to be multiple pathways to achieving a goal.

ODEE: What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers who want to follow a similar path to yours?

Borden: Instead of focusing on the challenges, just start by thinking about what you can do. Consider what you want to say and then try to do it. Everything is possible nowadays. Yes, you have an iPhone, and anyone can start making a film with one. As you expand, if you need help, find a community. Many people I’ve read about have found collaborators in their schools. If you don’t have enough money for finishing funds, there are grants available now. Don’t try to replicate what everyone else is doing. There are certain things that do well, especially in Hollywood, like horror films. If you have a great idea for a horror film, go for it. If you’re a filmmaker and want to make a do-it-yourself movie, you just need to know how. If you’re a writer, write the script. Writing is crucial, so keep rewriting it until it’s solid. If you don’t have all the money, work with what you have. Nowadays, shorts have a lot of potential. When I was making Born in Flames, there were only a few places where you could show shorts, but now shorts are picked up everywhere, even on Netflix.

My advice is: don’t dwell on the challenges, just think about what you want to say and work as hard as you can to express yourself if you believe in it because–if you think about the challenges–then you’ll be oppressed before you even start.

This conversation with Lizzie Borden was part of the Conversations at the Edge series, organized by the School of the Art Institute of Illinois at Chicago Department of Film, Video, New Media and Animation in partnership with the Gene Siskel Film Center and the Video Data Bank. This series features screenings, performances and talks by groundbreaking media artists. This particular event showcasing Borden’s work was presented in partnership with the UIC College of Architecture, Design and the Arts as well as the UIC Department of Gender and Women’s Studies.