First Run Features // 1983 // 80 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jesse Ataide (Retired) // August 3rd, 2006
"You say you want a revolution..."
Born in Flames is outsider cinema at its finest, political cinema at its most powerful, and it serves as a major milestone for what would eventually evolve into the American independent film scene. Needless to say, it's a rather impressive film.
Set during an unspecified but recognizable time in the future, Born in Flames imagines an America that has undergone a social democratic revolution that has completely equalized the rights of all Americans. But as the 10-year anniversary of the revolution is being celebrated, women and minorities find themselves being unceremoniously dumped from their hard-earned jobs. A number of diverse women's groups, including leaders of an underground women's army, politically-minded radio announcers and the young editors of the "Socialist Youth Review," begin attempts to try and address the problem, often with contradictory tactics and ineffectual results. Ultimately, it is only the assassination of a prominent female leader that unites all ideological factions under a single cause demanding, once again, social change.
It seems that reviewers of this film are often at a loss when trying to describe this film, which demonstrates its ability to continually defy characterization (which in turn has led to awkward descriptions such as "socialist-feminist sci-fi fantasy"). But in many respects, that's the beauty of the film: it's so many things at once that even after two decades and a political ideology that seemed dated even when the film was first released, it's still has an undeniable intensity and emotional power when watched today.
The most impressive element of Born in Flames, however, is that it's one of the few films to accurately reflect how a myriad of political issues -- gender equality, racial equality, sexual equality, class issues, etc. -- are all integrally linked. There have been films that have addressed all of these topics and explored them to different degrees, and some of them have been quite good. But rarely does a film dare attempt to tackle all of it at once. Admittedly, with 80 minutes the film isn't able to explore all of these issues in the full detail they deserve; inevitably, some elements are focused on with more scrutiny than others. But it is nonetheless made clear that all are connected on multiple levels, and any response to one has to inevitably address the others.
Long before gritty, documentary-like shooting techniques and an improvisational acting style became a "gutsy" artistic decision, director Lizzie Borden utilized these techniques to their full advantage, mostly out of necessity. Shot over five years with no assured financial backing, the film inevitably has an organic feel to it, and is likely the source of the sense of experimentation and camaraderie the imbues every frame of the film.
Quite frankly, I've seen a lot of films on VHS that look better than the DVD of this film. The image is often grainy, sometimes too dark, sometimes bleached out; the same variation in quality also characterizes the audio track. When it comes down to it, most home movies these days look better than this film does -- but the film is actually enhanced because of it, giving it an immediacy it would have lacked otherwise. No subtitles are provided, and the sole extra on the film includes an interview with Borden that appeared in The Independent in 1983. It's a thorough, enlightening source of information, but the only downside is that it's only available as a DVD-Rom feature. Still, it's better to have it than nothing at all.
Born in Flames is a compelling, sobering rebuke to the growing political apathy both in America and worldwide. If only more films were like it.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 80 Minutes
Release Year: 1983
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Interview with Director Lizzie Borden
* Lizzie Borden Biography