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Issue 132

Lizzie Borden: Born in Flames (1983)
by Yaniya Lee

This summer the TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) Cinematheque in Toronto showed Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983) as part its Free Screen series. Similar to Jennie Livingston’s 1990 film, Paris is Burning, BIF has gained tremendous significance among the LGBTQ community. The small-budget production was drawn out over a five-year period. Bleak, downtrodden streets of downtown New York City serve as the backdrop for the film’s fictitious near future, in which a socialist democratic revolution has overturned the capitalist state. Borden casts predominately Black female protagonists who seek a radical reorganization of society. The film’s portrayal of different groups of women working out how to challenge patriarchy and white supremacy was unique for its clear illustration of the fragmentation within second wave feminist struggles. Craig Willse and Dean Spade described the film in the BIF -themed issue of Women & Performance that they co-edited in 2013: its “radical vision…felt truly shocking: lesbian feminists building multi-strategy responses to heteropatriarchy through an analysis of racism and poverty, debating connections and disjunctions between community organizing, working inside systems, cross-gender and cross-race alliances, and armed resistance.”1 The film’s criticisms of society remain relevant today. It seems women of colour are still the most marginalized members of our communities, and the only way to stop the machinations of heteropatriarchy is drastic and immediate structural change.

A couple of years ago, in 2012, Allyson Mitchell, Deirdre Logue and Scott Miller Berry screened BIF in protest against TIFF’s egregious sexism. The “100 Essential Films by Feminists” series they organized at the Feminist Art Gallery (FAG) was a reaction to TIFF’s 2010 “Essential 100 films of all time,” which recognized just a single woman filmmaker alongside 99 male directors. As the FAG programmers noted, “TIFF readily, however wrongly, assumes the role of an ‘authority’ that dictates what kinds of film cultures are worthy, valuable, and eventually ‘historical’ enough to grace their oh-so silver screens.”2 TIFF, with its prestigious film festival and year-round screenings, events and exhibitions, has substantial institutional power. I’m interested in thinking about what it might mean for TIFF to show BIF now, especially in light of the film’s earlier use to criticize the institution. Does programming a feminist film represent TIFF’s support of social justice?

Media attention is susceptible to falling in line with what’s fashionable. Recent Black Lives Matter actions, for instance, have brought social justice concerns into a mainstream conversation. Perhaps the most widely covered political action this year was BLMTO’s blockade of the gay pride parade in Toronto to demand recognition of the needs of the most marginalized LGBTQ folks. By comparison, Grassy Narrows, another issue that has been the subject of longstanding activism, has received substantially less coverage. These actions demanding a right to clean land and water in the community may be less newsworthy because they have been ongoing since the town’s mercury spill in the 1970s. It’s clear that the importance of political actions is filtered by topicality and aesthetic appeal. Selecting to show BIF and host a talk with director Lizzie Borden aligns with the concerns of the current political climate: TIFF audiences are ready to see Black queers and movements for societal change on screen.

Representation of marginalized communities on screen is sorely needed and often overdue. This can have the effect of blinding eager audiences to unchanged institutional power. Without redistribution of power, political programming like TIFF’s screening of BIF does not address the grievances outlined by the FAG programmers. In a recent essay, Hannah Black wrote that, “the limits of inclusion are clear.” [3] She went on to explain how “[t]he evocation of the dismal histories and current realities of race/gender in an art context…is not often directly aimed at producing actual political effects.”4 Onscreen representation is only a single part of what is required for institutional transformation. During the Q&A after the film, Borden talked about what happened to some of the people who were in it. Kathryn Bigelow, the white woman who played one of the white feminist journalists, went on to direct films ideologically opposite to the sentiment of Born in Flames, and became the first woman director ever to win an Oscar Jean Satterfield, the Black woman who played Adelaide Norris, is now a social worker. Borden told the audience that a week earlier Satterfield was followed while driving home and then beaten up by her pursuants. The different evolution of these two women’s lives is a more reliable account of the racial and gendered inequalities BIF attempted to highlight. The protest organized by Mitchell, Logue and Berry called attention to how TIFF’s “MeN-ssentialist list” made the institution complicit in the kind of society that would bring about such disparate experiences.

In the ongoing struggle for change, it remains easy to feel we have made more progress than actually exists. Of course it’s not enough to judge TIFF by who is included and who is excluded. In reality, the institution is a complex entanglement of political inconsistencies that make it nearly impossible to criticize. I don’t expect TIFF to be the bearer of political awareness. Institutions like this are many-headed hydra. It does seem that TIFF has begun to make space for women, LGBTQ folks and non-white programmers and directors. I can only hope for future programming that ignores political trends rather than follows them when it suits. I have my fingers crossed for a film about queer Muslim women freedom fighters or an Indigenous community surviving limited access to resources and the threats of government encroachment.

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