New York

Born In Flames

The Film Forum

Born in Flames is a feminist film which examines the cultural place of women from a sociopolitical rather than overtly psychoanalytical perspective. The action takes place in New York of the future, ten years after a socialist revolution. Although promises of women’s social equality have been made, they have not been realized. The mise-en-scène does not present a futuristic world of sci-fi fantasy (an implausible fiction), but one which is all too bleakly like the present—a lack of difference which is not wholly successful, since we must constantly be told, rather than be shown, that it is future time. Such a nonutopian vision of the future could have undermined one’s sense of optimism about humanity’s potential for change, but this is countered through the film’s sassy vitality, which remains faithful to the (Utopian) notion that social reform lies in the collective consciousness of women. The message of the film is, indeed, a plea for unity of action among various hitherto “incompatible” feminist ideologies—for a communion of women rising like the phoenix from the flames of social injustice.

Shot in a rough cinema verité style, and shifting between fiction and the real-life personae of the participants, the film is a montage of several narratives, each of which describes the activities of different groups of characters which occasionally intersect and eventually coalesce. On Radio Regazza, the punk poet Adele Bertei raps on current events such as the success of vigilante bicyclists against rape; the black community leader, Honey, broadcasts homespun politics from the underground Phoenix Radio; and the black civil rights activist, Flo Kennedy, takes over a national TV newscast to question the unlikely suicide in prison of Adelaide Norris (Jeanne Satterfield), a black revolutionary leader of the Women’s Army picked up on suspicion of arms dealing. Norris’ tale is narrated partly through news broadcasts and partly through material projected by the FBI, who have been surveilling her public and private life. Meanwhile, a group of intellectuals—the writers of a socialist youth review—sit around arguing out the efficacy of the Party’s line on women’s issues. One of the narrative’s more interesting strategies, then, is to give women a voice through their usurpation of culture’s means of communication, but this begs the question of how much power to effect social reform the media actually exercises. This is a particularly poignant issue in relation to the role of the narrative’s oppositional body, the FBI—an organization run by men which possesses a silent, and sinister, control of information rendering it not only all-seeing and all-knowing, but also able to unconstitutionally “take out” whomsoever challenges the Law. Almost despite itself, therefore, the film acknowledges that power may be in the hands not of she who speaks but of he who sees and knows.

In the context of what is now a post-feminist discourse, the film’s exclusive attention to women presents something of a vacuum, for what it does not sufficiently address is how specifically women’s issues relate to those of men—the “masculine” is as stereotypic a construct as the “feminine.” In contradistinction to Pat Murphy’s Maeve, 1981, which sought to relate the suppression of women to the wider context of the conflict in Northern Ireland, the rhetoric of Born in Flames seems to be frozen into a ’70s ideology which perpetuates a separatist view of gender. For this reason it has the aura of a historical document, although it must be noted that, due to financial reasons, the film took five years to complete. Nevertheless, one is forced to ask whether an exclusively feminist model of social and ideological reform can be usefully applied to a society in which an increasingly computerized bureaucracy renders the source of power so inaccessible that it is virtually unidentifiable, and against which everyone, irrespective of gender, is impotent to exert any effective control over their own lives.

Jean Fisher