Lizzie Borden is the very definition of a feminist filmmaker. While she has made just a handful of films since starting her career in the 1970s, she works with more thought and care than most beloved auteurs. The writer/director not only takes time to make things on her terms (often with her own money), but with the people featured in them wholly in mind.
Perhaps best known for her ’80s films (Born in Flames and Working Girls) as well as her fight with Harvey Weinstein over 1992’s Love Crimes (which she has since disavowed), Borden technically got her start with the feature-length documentary Regrouping. Centred around the conversations (and disagreements) between the members of a woman’s group, Borden only screened the black-and-white film a few times before she pulled it from circulation entirely. After over 40 years hidden away in her closet (literally), this groundbreaking work — which features a young Kathryn Bigelow decades before her legendary Oscar win — is finally getting a chance to be seen by a new generation, thanks to No Master Territories: Feminist Worldmaking and the Moving Image.
A screening series “dedicated to works of nonfiction that invent new languages for the representation of gendered experience,” No Master Territories: Feminist Worldmaking and the Moving Image comes to Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox for Women’s History Month, running from March 3 to 26, 2023. Ahead of Regrouping’s long-overdue Canadian premiere as part of this programme on Friday, March 3, I spoke with Borden about how it’s been to revisit this seminal work after so many years, along with how it fits into her legacy as a willing and active collaborator. Read our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for length, below.
What was it that made you want to pull this film from circulation instead of using it as a platform to continue to promote yourself and promote your filmmaking?
Lizzie Borden: Because the women in the film objected to it, I felt it was wrong for me to show it. I just felt that we’d be hurting them if I did, and I didn’t want to be that kind of person.
Born in Flames was, in some ways, a response to Regrouping because I thought, “If I work on Born in Flames I want it to be a collaboration, but with the voices of the women in it being very much their own.” And especially because I was working with women of colour at that time, I didn’t want to relive the experience of Regrouping, although I learned a lot from it in terms of the way it was edited. Sound over sound, layers of sound — because I’m from the art world and that kind of thing appealed to me.
But the reason I took Regrouping out of the closet was it showed again at the very same places where it had shown the first time: the Edinburgh [International Film Festival] and the Anthology [Film Archives]. In between, I rekindled a friendship with one of the women in it. And one of the women, Marian Cajori, died, and her resume listed me, that she worked with me. And we had a mutual friend, Christian Blackwood, who was a documentary filmmaker who had also died, sadly enough. And he told me that Marian was okay about it. So, because two of the women seemed okay about it, it felt alright to show again.
It was asked to be in Edinburgh, even though the woman who was programming it had not seen it because that’s where it showed and was objected to by someone who was in the film briefly, but a friend of the women who I’ve made the film about. And the response to it [at this screening at Edinburgh] was shocking to me, that younger generations were interested in groups. I didn’t know that anyone would be interested in that because it’s a black and white, very experimental film.
So their interest in it made me think that there are other things that people could see in the film. And because two of the women were okay about it… Well, one died but she seemed okay about it. But the other two just stayed out of touch with me. They didn’t object to it, they just let it go. And then The Anthology wanted to restore it. And I thought, “Alright, that might be okay.” Because it showed a little bit at the Anthology, unrestored. And then the scratched up 16mm, they restored it to a brand new 16mm because 35mm would’ve changed the aspect ratio.
I still feel something bad about the women [in Regrouping] because I feel like one has to have a different working relationship. And in Born in Flames I did, very, very much so. So I still feel cautious about showing it. The questions and answers [following screenings] though, have less to do with the first group than about groups.
People talk to me about their experience in groups and, to me, that’s fascinating. Because at this point, I don’t even feel like my films anymore — they’re just artifacts out in the world that they haven’t changed, but the audience has changed. But it’s interesting that these younger audiences have come to it. And the questions they ask me are fascinating and help me understand where people are coming from now. Not just girls, but young men, because when Born and Flames first came out, I don’t think young men could relate to it at all. And with Regrouping, even some young men in groups seem to have the same experiences, or so they’ve told me. So for me, it’s a fascinating experience.
That’s, sadly, bold of you to be thinking about the participants of your documentary, as opposed to, the need to show yourself as a filmmaker. It shows your character. And then I know when you made Born In Flames, you made an effort to collaborate in different ways and to look outside of the white middle class feminism that these women in Regrouping were about..
Lizzie Borden: Thank you, thank you so much. It sounds like you read something I said, which is great, which is that a lot of the art world below, I would say 23rd Street, was white and middle class. And so that was something too, to try to expand into a more — now the word is intersectional, but then it didn’t exist — approach to putting the film together.
But I’m sorry, I interrupted you.
No, that’s okay. I just think it’s really excellent that you were able to take the learnings from that film and apply them to your next film. I feel like collaboration in general is something that is very intrinsic to your filmmaking. Would you agree?
Lizzie Borden: Yes, absolutely. Collaboration. Even with this new book [Whorephobia: Strippers on Art, Work, and Life].
Yes, to me it’s really important because I do feel that a film is larger than the sum of its parts, and the parts are everyone who participates in it. But I think for me it’s always about learning something.
I would not do Born in Flames today because it wouldn’t be the right thing. I started it in the late 70s and then finished it maybe ’82, ’83. But there, collaborating with the Black women who were in it and their voices being their own in the sense of the larger whole, was something that was so important to me. And in Working Girls, it was the idea of a certain subculture and trying to turn over the expectations or the judgments that would be made about sex workers. Although “sex work” was not used at that point — even though the [term] existed, we didn’t use that word working. But nobody said prostitute. Prostitute and whore are words that have been reclaimed by sex workers.
Yes, [Working Girls] was about a woman, Molly, but it didn’t look into her psychologically so much as much as it explored how she dealt with the women in the day. So that’s one group. And [working with] the women at night was a whole different feeling. And then the villain was, of course, was the madam, who wouldn’t even admit that’s what she did.
And the book evolved out of wanting to reconnect within the sex world, because it is such a powerful subculture, especially through the pandemic. Oh my god, they helped each other so much.
But yes, you’re absolutely right, the groups fascinate me. Subsets within other groups and how they change and shift and grow and how people behave in them.
There’s that one part in Born in Flames, when they’re talking about whether it’s more powerful to see one lion or 200 mice united as a front. And I feel like all of your work gets to that point: that when we come together and we work together, we can create so much more change than if we try to be focused on individualism.
Lizzie Borden: I agree. That’s so on the head.
And there’s another thing which is, when I was making Born in Flames, some of the Black women didn’t like the word feminism, they preferred womanism or even another word. So it was like, “Throw that word away.”
I personally am a staunch feminist then and now, but the word doesn’t matter if one can come together on some issues. You don’t have to come together on all the issues. But that’s why, especially seeing what’s happening now politically, I think that’s more important than ever that women come together and work on some issues, even if they disagree on other issues.
And it doesn’t matter what one calls it, what word it’s called. Because when I was making Born In Flames, Ms. Magazine and all of that seemed to be the dominant feminism, and it just seemed so middle class and so alienating to, I suppose, other kinds of feminists. And I think there are many feminisms, plural, and again, intersectionally. And I don’t think enough work has been done on class.
But I feel right now that there’s the idea of cultural appropriation, and I feel like it would be cultural appropriation were I to do [Born in Flames] now. There’s so many great films being made by women of colour that I can’t even keep up.
Speaking about the fact that we see so many more marginalized folks taking up and claiming the space that they should have had so many years ago, how do you feel about this recent revival of more censorship ideals? There’s a bit of moral panic about depictions of sexuality, of race, of violence coming back into the cultural consciousness.
Lizzie Borden: Well, I have really mixed feelings about that.
I am really a big supporter of Me Too, but there are gray areas where who legislates, who judges. And the idea of certain words or certain images triggering people, especially women, I feel is problematic because it leads to the censorship of movies and books. And the censorship on the right is just disgusting, like what [Ron] DeSantis is doing in Florida in terms of gay and trans books. That’s horrendous, and we all agree that that’s terrible. But what happens, I think, within academia most commonly is that something in a movie that’s a classic movie may trigger a woman.
I had a friend who showed Chinatown without warning that there was a slapping scene in it, and that person was triggered. So this teacher was brought up on charges. And I thought, “Wow, you can’t show films. You have to have trigger warnings on everything.” And yet at the same time, I do understand, we still live in a very violent world where a couple of years ago in London, a woman’s crossing a park and is raped by a cop. I saw the most horrific things on TV where white cops tormented young black female adolescents. And so violence is still so epidemic because of — I hate to use this overused word — the patriarchy. But at the same time, the sensitivity could prevent female professors from teaching what they know or showing films.
Look, Chinatown is, at this point, seen as problematic in many ways, but the interference with knowledge is terrible. And I don’t know how that started to happen. The question is, what effect does that have on other people, and again, groups? Does that mean that the group is deprived of seeing a film or reading a book because one person is triggered? What are the bigger implications of that?
Look, I’m very pro sex worker and I’ve seen a lot of women be anti-sex worker. They think that all sex workers are in it but they don’t mean to be in it. Even if they say they like the job, there’s something wrong with it. So they want to end all sex work. And that’s problematic for me, because sex work has existed throughout the centuries. Yes, it would be great if everyone had enough money and there were enough jobs that you could have alternatives, but very often there are not. And sex work is very often the better alternative, if someone can handle it.
It actually leads me to a question I have for you. Even though your films don’t shy away from talking about harsh realities, I still leave all of them with a sense of hope. And I’m just wondering what pushes you forward and gives you hope as an artist and as an individual who is trying to make things and make the world better.
Lizzie Borden: That’s interesting, and thank you for saying that because I had hoped that all the films would be hopeful. And I think it’s because there’s a dialogue. I think that anything that creates a dialogue is hopeful. Anytime there’s movement, there’s hope.
Each film asks questions at the end. “Can we talk in groups?” And two women say, “But I don’t believe it.” But then you think, well, what’s the sentence after that? What’s the next line of dialogue? Well, she said, “we can believe it.”
With Working Girls it’s what is Molly going to do? Is she going to get another job? Is she going to call Elliot, maybe see him privately? Is she going to go back but maybe have tougher conditions for Lucy, which is only one shift a day, that’s it. Because if she had left before Lucy pushed her into the second shift, she might have kept working. It was just more than she could handle.
And with Born in Flames, after the transmission tower of the World Trade Center blows up, the question for me is what happens next? I’m not into the idea of urban terrorism; I feel it’s wrong. I feel that all the women would be arrested.
In terms of what’s going on now in terms of choice, I think we have to go underground. So I think that the idea that we can still get angry is hopeful. I think a lot of women who were angry in the 70s and 80s about everything, and through Obama and other periods of time, thought maybe things are getting better now. Now, we are all angry again, and rejoining marches and trying to figure out solutions to get women who are pregnant abortions where they can’t. We’re just trying to do all that. So hope is when we still are thinking that there are possible solutions. There’s just never an absolute end solution, but a solution to something. That’s what I want films to convey.
I live in LA, which is a less active place than New York, but I have friends in New York who are much more on the line. Young trans activists who just ride their bikes and go up against the cops over and over again. I had really thought, and maybe you read this too, that Born in Flames would be irrelevant by now. And then when I look at it and I see that, post-pandemic women make less money than men, the choice issue, it’s like, oh my god, we’re living in Handmaid’s Tale almost here. How does this happen? How did we lose the gains we had made other than the fact that I would say the patriarchy — meaning white men, but not just — resent women’s progress so much? Same thing in terms of Black progress after Black Lives Matter.
There is the hammer that comes back down, the fear of anybody not like them and their draconian laws they’re putting into place. But I do feel that we are inspired to fight, which is definitely helpful.
I am hopeful that your project Rialto is going to see the light of day one day. I was wondering if you have any updates there, because I’ve heard about this film since the early 2000s and I know I’m not the only one that would love to see you make another film.
Lizzie Borden: Thank you. Yes, it’s the one film I’ve been really burning to make for such a long time.
I have some money now through a production company. Not a lot. It’s a few million, which is very little for a period piece. But the issue right now is finding the actress who will agree to be in it for a price, because most of the actors who work for this production company are too big. And it’s just hard to get through their agency managers. That’s where we are and where we’ve been, because if you make an offer, you have to leave it with somebody for at least a month. And I don’t think anybody’s read it. And so I just went through another little rewrite on it because I keep rewriting it as the world changes a bit, so I’m reinvigorating it for myself.
I have actually spoken to actresses who don’t want to play an abortionist. Either they had a hard time having children, and so for them it’s not the kind of role they want, even though that’s not 100 percent what the film is about. The film is really more set against the time of McCarthy and so, it’s about other rights. The woman who conducts secret abortions in the basement also shows foreign films and the foreign films are banned, that’s the majority of the story. And we only later find out what she does, although I’m giving it away right now. But it’s really more shocking that there was something called the Legion of Decency, where films like Miracle in Milan and Ingrid Bergman films could not be shown. The Catholics would not allow that.
In any place where there was a Catholic majority, [the Legion of Decency] would come after the independent theaters and try to get them to not show these films. And so for me, it’s actually interesting because I feel we’re entering that period again; that’s why I’m constantly rewriting it. Because the things I thought were more a little bit like Brave New World or 1984, they’re happening now. And these books have been banned.
What advice would you give to young people, young activists, who want to make films but have limited means? Whether that’s funds or connections to do so. Because obviously you made a lot happen with very little.
Lizzie Borden: I think time is money. And back then I had a lot of time and didn’t have any money. But I also owned the means of production, which meant that I could edit what I shot. So even though I could do a day’s shoot with a couple of hundred dollars, I would spend the rest of the time editing it. And so that’s how Born in Flames happened.
Had I gone to film school, I couldn’t have made it because I just had a premise of 10 years after a social, cultural revolution, and I wanted to see what would happen. So I spent two years just gathering information and having group meetings of women — I wanted to know what were the issues they cared most about. And only at the second year did a story start to manifest itself. And I worked on it in bits and pieces over time.
I think at some periods between then and now, the do-it-yourself nature didn’t like vibe with people and now everyone does have the means of production with their cameras. The big thing is how do you edit? I never learned how to digitally edit. But so many young people now have the means of production. So it’s really a question of making a film you believe in, or is unique to you if it’s your story, and collaboration.
That’s the one thing I really miss now. Downtown [New York] in the 70s and 80s was a place where everybody worked with each other. You could get someone to shoot, you could get somebody to do sound, you could get somebody to light, you could use the downtown scene as a backdrop. And there were actors from theater groups. I had mostly unknown people in Born in Flames, but Ron Vawter who was in the Wooster Group, was in my film and in Betty Gordon’s film [Empty Suitcases]. We all shared information. But that’s gone now. I know that [community] must exist in other places, maybe in other boroughs, maybe in Detroit. Places in Canada I’m sure that exists. So, it’s starting that way.
I was able to do Working Girls because Born in Flames went to a lot of festivals, and again, in a way that I wouldn’t have done had I gone to film school, which is that I was fighting to keep my loft in New York, and I had to put all my rent money into escrow. So I thought, “I’ll use it to make a film and I’ll see what happens when I finish shooting.” And luckily, I found a couple of producers, these two incredible women, who helped me get another a $100,000 to finish it. I had it all in the can, but I just didn’t know how to do all the post-production because I had no money left. So I was working on faith and hope there. But it has gotten harder. And that’s what I discovered coming out here: if you lose the control of your film and you don’t have final cut, then it turns into something that is not your own. And it’s why I think it’s taking me so long. I finally have a production company and they do respect my vision on it. And so we’ll see.
But I would just say, start shooting. Start shooting, start building liaisons and alliances with people who feel the same way or have different abilities. I think one big thing is editing. If you find an editor who you can collaborate with, that would be great if you don’t know how to edit in a more than drag and drop way. And don’t fear time. In other words, don’t fear that it could take a long time.
I think once a person puts something together, once it’s in a film festival — it doesn’t have to be Sundance, it can be a respected film festival where people actually see it — and you meet a lot of people, and then perhaps a second film can be made for a price. And I see that more and more women, more people of colour, more trans filmmakers, are making films. The big issue is how do you jump from $200,000 to $5 million? An episode of a TV show is often made for more than $5 million.
Technically I’m not asking for that much [for Rialto], but it’s still a lot. Sometimes I feel like, why couldn’t I have done something else for $200,000? It’s just that this story and that period piece, it somehow is what I wanted to say, what I wanted to explore. And it’s just never left me as a desire. So I thought, “Oh, I’ve got to make this.” It’s just been a mission to be on.
Is there’s anything else that you want to share about Regrouping and why you are excited to share this film now?
Lizzie Borden: I’m just excited to see how people react to it, and a little scared. Each screening now is a little terrifying for me because I don’t know how people will react to it, coming to it from the expectations of Born in Flames. Because [Regrouping] is very different. It’s much more experimental. So it’s only been shown, what, maybe eight times, nine times since it was restored? And each screening has been very different.I’ve walked into screenings that are very, very Gen Z and supportive. And I’ve walked into screenings that are, I think, more subdued.
I learn about a film by watching other people watching it, which again is scary because I have to reconstruct. “Why did I cut to black? Why do I have this shot there?” So it’s more than exciting; it’s discovery. I think I’m always interested in discovery, even though at times discovery is scary.
Scary sometimes is not a bad thing. It means that you’re challenging yourself.
Lizzie Borden: If you weren’t scared, you would just be on a flat line.
Regrouping screens on March 3 as part of TIFF’s No Master Territories programme, with an introduction by series co-curator Erika Balsom, followed by a Q&A with director Lizzie Borden.