Born in Flames
- Grrrl Power
- Hannah Bitowski
By now, many of Liverpool’s feminist, queer, and politically-engaged twenty- and thirty-somethings will be familiar with Grrrl Power, a collective of three women collaborating to create a platform for female creatives in the city and raise awareness about issues concerning women, especially those from marginalised communities outside of mainstream conversation.
Much of that activity has been focused on conversation; creating spaces to discuss the challenges women face daily, including harassment. Don’t Touch Me is a campaign seeking to target clubs and venues to enforce stricter policies on verbal, physical and sexual harassment, and to encourage victims to feel confident in reporting such abuse, as well as giving others the green light to step in and take action when they see it happening. Other groups across the UK are doing similar work too, from Pussy Palace (London) to Come Thru (Leeds), highlighting how this behaviour has become worryingly normalised until now.
As part of FACT’s Refuge season – a programme of events considering the idea of safe spaces in relation to art and cultural institutions – Grrrl Power (Olivia Graham, Michelle Houlston, Aoife Robinson) and Hannah Bitowski (co-founder of Queen Of The Track, an alternative women’s magazine focusing on culture and gender politics), present Lizzie Borden’s polemic BORN IN FLAMES.
Opening the event with an explanation of the collective’s accountability statement, these four women stress the importance of such guidelines. While I’ve engaged in conversations with people who believe such formalities a case of “political correctness gone mad”, these reference points for respecting one another’s identities can go some way to ensuring people of diverse backgrounds and experiences feel comfortable in the same place, and thankfully it’s something we’re seeing more of in our city’s ever-developing cultural landscape, most notably with LGBTQ+ and ‘alternative’ events.
And why shouldn’t we? It’s our collective responsibility as members of a community, and consumers of culture, to agree to respect and listen to one another when sharing a space. Such statements in no way limit enjoyment, or prevent experimentation, but create an environment where audiences can feel comfortable to be themselves, and to call out prejudice when they see it.
And so the tone is set for Borden’s documentary-style feminist science-fiction film. The plot follows two New York feminist groups, each using local pirate radio stations to convey their message. After a political activist dies mysteriously in police custody, both groups are galvanised into action, many joining the Women’s Army, whilst being closely watched by the FBI and a team of journalists. The film splices jarring scenes together, pairing news reports with police meetings, picket lines with intimate moments showing the various characters’ relationships. Some of the most arresting scenes occur when Honey and Isabel – the two group leaders – stare directly into the camera, spitting into a microphone broadcasting to their radio listeners, melodically enunciating the issues their communities face, and how they must overcome. Music is hugely important in the film, with radio segments pinpointing key plot moments, and the film’s title coming from a song by the psychedelic experimental rock band, Red Krayola, which punctuates the narrative.
Born In Flames is a stylised art film with a moody new wave soundtrack and a message; demonstrating that when the police and patriarchy will not help, women must organise, protest and ultimately revolt in order to gain justice and safety for themselves.
“Which would you rather comes through the door, one lion unified or 500 mice? Five hundred mice can do a lot of damage and destruction.”
Borden anticipated the importance of intersectional feminism, as the film explores race, class and societal oppression against women in addition to everyday sexism. The director also toys with our understanding of labour, particularly in a montage sequence showing female hands doing manual chores, from mundane factory work, to putting on a condom, setting up the idea that the Women’s Army eventually broadcast for consideration by the nation: to pay women for housework.
In the same way that Borden created the script for her film, so do Grrrl Power and Hannah Bitowski create their manifesto; by inviting their peers to participate in a post-film discussion. This democratic approach reflects the aim of creating a charter that works not just to combat sexism, but to address racism, transphobia, biphobia, homophobia, ableism and ageism too.
In essence, these women are asking every venue, bar and cultural organisation in the city to question themselves: is my space truly accessible to everybody? As Houlston admits on the night, however, this event being hosted in FACT is immediately problematic, as there are some communities who may not feel comfortable or welcome in a gallery space, and subsequently that earlier democratic discussion quickly becomes led by the white, educated and middle class. I therefore hope that as this project develops, Grrrl Power are able to reach out to other groups, hold workshops and talks in more accommodating spaces and truly listen to the people most affected by these issues, in order to enact real change.