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Born In Flames: Meditations on armed RE_volutions

“Wage Love.” — Charity Hicks

“Hold on to love, let its light be your guide. My people, hold on.” - Eddie Kendricks

The first time I watched Lizzie Borden’s Born In Flames, was as part of a film series I co-convened with international curator Chandra Frank at Goldsmiths University. It’s often described as a science-fiction revolution film, a paradoxical documentary, a post-socialist dystopia, a feminist “cult classic”. I hate the term cult classic. It implies a group of electively marginalised people; trendily misunderstood rich kids, who aren’t into the “mainstream”. For me, Born In Flames is not a cult classic. It is a call to wage love.

The series: Queer Feminism’s on Film worked to highlight the often underrepresented nuanced narratives of black and brown queer womxn, trans and non-binary community. It was an odd, yet somehow perfect experience to be presenting the film, the first time I saw it. Chandra and I had been co-curating screenings, each trying to pick titles the other hadn’t seen, so as I led the post-screening discussion it was all I could do not to jump out of my seat in excitement. “Let’s go!” I wanted to cry! “Shotguns all round! Let’s start training to arm the revolution in Fordham Park, New Cross!”

"They want to take the country that we won by the gun. Shall it be taken by people voting with a pen today? It will not happen. We are going back to bush war. The gun is mightier than the pen. I’ll throw away the pen in my pocket and say ‘Let’s get back to the struggle. Let’s go back to war.’ ” – President Robert Mugabe

I found myself looking around at a politely interested amphitheatre of students and researchers and wondered how anybody could watch this film and not feel moved to action. I was quickly subdued and attempted to lead a somewhat strained discussion, eager for them all to leave so that I could explode again internally, wave upon wave of possibility bubbling over. Directed in 1983, Borden’s pseudo-documentary feels more and more relevant with today’s post-race, post-gender, post-sexuality neoliberalism frictiously coexisting alongside ever increasing figures of police brutality, gender-based violence, corrective rape, the re-criminalisation of both migrant and LGBTQI existence and the privatisation of the very university in which we sat.

Almost two years later, I sit down to write this short essay on what remains one of my top-three favourite films of all time. I start taking notes on the top of a hill in Devon. I’m here to visit my grandfather and his wife and the bench that was erected at the place where my grandmothers ashes were scattered, here looking out at the sea. “For Pamela Josephine Budge” the faded plaque reads, already intertwined with living stains of moss and rust, “who found tranquility at this place where the land meets the sea.” I am also reading adrienne marie brown’s Emergent Strategies (2017), and I’m trying to find the words to recapture the rage and the energy and the conviction I felt then, when I first saw this film. Now I feel exhausted, I feel in search of peace, time, pleasure, desire, tranquility. I feel a deep-lonesome hunger for these things that white supremacist, heteronormative, capitalist patriarchy keeps forever out of reach.

I read adrienne’s passages out loud to my grandmother's spirit and they unfurl like a soothing balm over the oh so casually obliterating racism’s I endured the night before from my white grandfather. I have a friend who explained that during “the revolution” mixed-race folx shouldn’t be allowed on the front-lines because they’d find it harder to shoot white people when necessary. I argued fiercely against this assertion but sitting at his dinner table, I wonder if she was right. I relay this information to another mixed race friend who shakes her head darkly intoning, ‘intimacy makes things hectic.’

What intimacies have I shared with Lizzie - a white director? Since I’ve considered laying down my life at the forefront of this queer armed struggle in New Cross, inspired by her film, I figure we can be on a first name basis. How is it that a white woman can, with so much detail and fluency, imagine the delicately careful oppression of the white feminist elite, the very real time-management concerns of the black, single-parent would be revolutionary, the appropriative ‘my movement first’ of the cornrow beat-poeting white punk? Realities of my everyday life, my history, my workplace, my love life, my revolution? Have I given her too much? Too much of myself? Too much credit. Or is it just the way the world is - not all skin folks are kin folks, and not all kin folks are skin? As much as we might have wanted her to be, Alice Walker sighs, there’s just no indication that Zora Neale Hurston was queer, and why do we need her to be to accept all that she has given us?

“We are in an imagination battle...Imagination gives us borders, gives us superiority, gives us race as an indicator of capability. I often feel I am trapped inside someone else’s imagination, and I must engage my own imagination in order to break free.” - amb

As a speculative science-fiction writer I am constantly engaging my imagination as a revolutionary act of resistance; envisioning alternative modes of being, of organising, of interacting, of eating, of fucking, of loving in order to survive this crushingly monolithic experience of oppression, consuming, working, resisting, oppression consuming, working, resisting, and forever being co-opted. I often find myself casting about for a front line on which to stand, on which to fight, on which to be in armed confrontation. So many intersecting sites of need, and so many of us so exhausted and struggling, struggling to imagine an Other that can mean more than us in the margins, in the cracks, in the forgottens, written only in the essential position of physical, emotional and psychological labourers.

In his book On Resistance: A Philosophy of Defiance, philosopher Howard Caygill quotes Martiniquan revolutionary and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, possibly one of the deepest students of colonial violence: ‘…colonialism is ‘[v]iolence in the state of nature and will not bow except before a greater violence’ (Fanon, 470) – an intransigent posture that can only issue in a process of escalation.’

I have always been somewhat indecently obsessed with violence. As a very physical child, a large child, a child who loved and learnt and expressed anger and frustration with her hands, her weight, her body, who would often butt her head into white people in order to get them to go away. Who grew up between entirely different, if perhaps equally passive aggressive States. I ravenously followed the life of Mugabe at university; watching his speeches and reading Fanon, trying to find the missing link with an itchy trigger finger and possibly too many targets in sight. The friend of hectic intimacies suggests that it is not - as I have put forwards - that there are so many front lines, all equally murky, that one does not know where to stand and fight, but that the enemy has become harder to place - ‘so often’, she explains ‘we are shooting in the mirror.’ Last week three black people under 25 were stabbed to death within a three-mile radius of the house I was born in. For me, perhaps violence is an indulgent dream - reparations - freedom! For others it remains an escalating reality.

Emergence ‘is another way of speaking of all the connective tissue of all that exists - the way, the Tao, the force, change, God/dess, life. Birds flocking, cells splitting, fungi whispering underground.’ - amb

So yet I sit here, speaking to the spirit of my grandmother who I have the luxury of imagining as no longer white, who has become a part of all that is here, a part of all that I am, here where the land meets the sea. She straightens the over-large collar of her navy trench coat, adjusting large 80’s sunglasses and trying to understand. I am trying to articulate what I mean, what I want. I don’t think I can have violence and tranquility both. I don’t think revolutions of the pen work, but I don’t think revolutions of the gun have done so well either, even when it has been women - queer women - black women - women who have often suffered the most silently - pulling the triggers.. The tired yet timeless drumbeat lyrics of Eddie Kendricks, adriennes’ passionfruit nectar incantations, Mugabe’s fisted promises to country and future, Fanon’s bitterly painful observations, Lizzie Borden’s queer feminisms on film, all these marinate in my mind, alternately heating and cooling, trying to become something Other. For it is the change I desire, the evolutionary moment when an electrical storm of chemicals created the first nervous system, a change communicated not on the internet, but via this idea of emergence. And I dream, I imagine, that through this decolonial network of urges to finally be free of the slippery intoxicating tentacles of assimilation Born in Flames shucks so well, the movement might be one which wages love, and that that love will be the most fearsome and terrifying force a front line is yet to behold.

Ama Josephine Budge will be introducing our 35th Anniversary screening of Born in Flames (1983) on 26/04/18 at Genesis Cinema as part of this year's edition of the East End Film Festival. Grab your ticket here:

Ama Josephine Budge is a speculative science fiction and fantasy/art writer, curator and aspiring pleasure activist working interdisciplinarily to manifest black, queer and gender-fluid futures. Ama is currently working on a PhD proposal exploring queer modes of climate colonialism resistance through inherently environmentalist erotic pleasure knowledges in Ghana and Kenya.

Tweet - @AmJamB

All images courtesy of Lizzie Borden and Anthology Film Archives, New York. Born in Flames was recently preserved by Anthology Film Archives with restoration funding by The Hollywood Foreign Press Association and The Film Foundation. Distributed by Cinenova.

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