An Interview with Lizzie Borden
Transcription, Editing and Introduction by Glynis Sherwood
Lizzie Borden, a New York filmmaker, visited Toronto in September 1986
when her film, Working Girls, an empathetic portrayal of prostitution as
an economic choice, premiered at the annual Festival of Festivals. Working
Girls is Lizzie Borden’s second full-length feature movie. Her first film,
Born in Flames, depicts a futuristic scenario where a variety of feminist
groups, from underground radio stations to anti-rape squads, to a Women’s
Army, attempt to revolutionize society along radical feminist lines. KIO
collective members, Alexandra Devon and Catherine Tammaro, interviewed Lizzie
Borden during her stay in Toronto.
Interview by Alexandra Devon and Catehrina Tammaro
Kick It Over #18 Spring 1987
Lizzie Borden has adopted a strong anti-censorship stance which is critical
of the anti-pornography movement. Her position illustrates the divisions
in the feminist movement in response to both the negative images of women
conveyed by mainstream pornography and the overwhelming ability of the state
to silence artistic expression. The KIO collective, while abhorring government
interference in any area of life, including censorship, also acknowledges
many of the arguments and analysis put forward by the anti-pornography movement.
The goal should be not to enhance differences by siding with any particular
“camp”, but to find ways of dealing with and eradicating misogyny, in any
form, while rejecting censorship so that we may be free to create our own
images as feminist filmmakers such as Lizzie Borden have begun to do.
Alexandra Devon: Tell us how you came to your current views on
Lizzie Borden: My interest in prostitution and my coming to a totally
different opinion about it [occurred when] I began to meet women who really
“worked”. I had mixed feelings about the anti-pornography movement from the
beginning because it seemed too moralistic and a little too contemptuous
of imagery without seeing how it worked. Also, there was a holy attitude
that I objected to. But when I started to meet women who actually “worked”
I began to see that it was wrong to see them as victimized or degraded. The
more women I met, and the more houses I visited - it was mostly brothels
that I visited because those were the women I met - the more I realized that
they did not fit into the stereotype I had of working girls. They didn’t
wear short skirts or stiletto heels, they looked like any of us and they
worked in houses and they chose to do it for many, many reasons.
There was a lot of controversy when Not A Love Story [a Canadian-made film,
both an expose and condemnation of pornography and the sex industry as a
form of degradation and violence against women] came out in the States, and
I actually was very critical of that film because I felt that what it did
was make women who worked in the sex industry feel as if they were doing
something wrong. There are a lot of women who are victimized by prostitution
obviously: for example, an under-aged girl arriving at Grand Central Station
caught up by a pimp and put out into the street is victimized. However that
comprises only a small percentage of women who work as prostitutes.
When Not A Love Story came out with that back to nature mentality - you know
Tracy Lee cavorting along the beach at the end of the film and everything
is back to normal - the idea of an awakening to a choice was one thing, but
a lot of women have chosen to work as prostitutes. For me it’s an economic
choice in this culture, where work is so abominable most of the time. To
choose to work two to three shifts a week as a prostitute and make the same
money or more as working a forty or fifty hour work week, where the work
is demeaning, exhausting, not necessarily in somebody’s field of passion
so that it’s morally dispiriting, is a real choice. Obviously in a future
society where we would rethink the work ethic maybe there’s a way that not
only prostitution won’t exist, but people can choose to work at the things
they want to work at. Basically, my film Working Girls is about the idea
of a woman choosing prostitution as an economic choice and not being pushed
into it. She doesn’t have a daddy problem, she doesn’t have any psychological
problems, she doesn’t hate men, she doesn’t have any axe to grind, in terms
of doing it, except for the fact that she wants her own time. The other thing
that I found too is that there are some prostitutes who love their work,
there are others who tolerate it, but it’s not that it’s hurting them tremendously.
There aren’t many women - there are some but no more than the ordinary woman
in the streets - who get raped, attacked and hurt. Prostitutes are more visible
in the streets so the percentage of rapes and attacks is relatively higher.
But what practically every movie about prostitutes makes us think is that
a hooker is a walking target, and there are so many prostitutes hurt by the
end of these movies that you think it’s the unsafest profession in the world.
Women are smarter than that. There are a lot of safety mechanisms involved.
What I found out about brothels is that there were safety mechanisms against
violence in many forms from “Johns”, but also from the police. There was
a direct line to the police station in case somebody problematic came in.
Say a customer had a gun or something, then they could buzz the police station.
These women couldn’t get arrested because they weren’t calling the vice cops.
There were als health protections. A lot of the women who “work” are healthier
than most ordinary women, they’re more educated about their bodies.
The major problem I saw was a bit of schizophrenia, if anything. You know
just that sense of being touched/not being touched, having a sense where
you have to do work and somehow cut your body off from feeling. There was
an incredible labyrinth-like ability of these women to have another working
name and then, when they leave work, become themselves again. Some of them
had really decent relationships with lovers, male or female. Some of them
had problems of course but who doesn’t in this culture. Also I found that
in a brothel a lot of the codes and rituals reproduce what we see in heterosexual
social codes and rituals in places other than in a brothel, like singles
bars. Any kind of a job that a woman has where she services mostly men has
many, many parallels to prostitution. Waitressing, being a stewardess, being
a PR person, working on many levels, like in the music industry, you have
to service men. A lot of the exchanges I thought were really similar. For
instance, “Would you like to sit down, make yourself comfortable, can I get
you something to drink,” etc. That was shocking to me in a way when I first
saw the parallel.
When I finished this film, a feminist came up to me and said, “How can you
do this, this is very anti-feminist, your stance is anti-feminist.” People
saying you are making an apology for prostitution, refusing to see it as
an equivalent exchange. What I tried to do in Working Girls was to show that
Molly, the lead character, or the other women, but especially Molly because
we follow her throughout the whole day, is not exploited by the men. It’s
an even exchange, and there’s a lot of humour and even some compassion back
and forth. She knows what she’s getting, she wants money, she’ll be able,
during that hour or half-hour, to do her job as well or not as well as she
can. She has a commodity so she can choose the conditions, the framework,
who she sees, who she doesn’t see, the amount of involvement - all of that.
Because she has that to rent. not to sell, it’s an even exchange.
Who I did find was the enemy was the Madam, just as a pimp would be the enemy
because of the profiting off the bodies of the workers. So it ends up being
like a regular employment situation. I didn’t see it as that much different,
always trying to get the most work for the least return. Of course, the girls
in the house try to redress that imbalance. by ripping off the Madam -- not
counting their sessions, not writing down the right number of hours, etc.
AD: How did you become a feminist?
LB: Around 1972, I got really interested in what
could be said to be the beginnings of radical feminism. It just brought everything
together for me. Somehow the whole Vietnam thing was so male oriented, and
a lot of the issues were about men. The women’s movement brought things together
in such a vital way that I was able to start to see parallels in almost every
other political situation, from antiwar movements to libertarian struggles
in other countries, all of that, but through the viewpoint of feminism.
At that point I was a painter and an art critic, when I first came to New
York, and then realized that I didn’t like the visual and the verbal so separated.
I was really jealous of people making films. I would see people making films,
like Goddard, and think, “I’m really jealous of this.” So then I thought,
“OK, I should be making films if I’m responding this way.” So I taught myself
everything. I just decided that I’d had too much of school - school had destroyed
art for me, really. I knew too much about it. I didn’t want to learn anything
about film other than what I needed to know - to shoot, do sound and edit.
I loved editing, it’s so much like writing, and I became good at it so that
I was able to support myself as a film editor - usually small films and documentaries.
Making a film was a way to get involved politically. I never was involved
in consciousness-raising groups. Somehow making a film itself was a political
process for me. Born In Flames came out of a lot of the inequalities I saw
when I came to New York. Also, the alternative movements - the gay movement,
the women’s movement - were very divided and reproduced the divisions of
the dominant culture. For example, Black women were still very isolated from
white women, who were very isolated from Latin and Asian women, who were
invisible. So that was one of the things I was interested in doing Born In
Flames about. I began to be involved with Black women for the purpose of
making the film. I wanted to construct a paradigm that I didn’t see happening
in the culture. For me, film is a political exploration. I’m totally not
involved politically except in so far as I make films. I mean I don’t go
to meetings. I don’t go to anything! But the films are a way to have a reason
to be involved. The film about prostitution is the same thing. That, as opposed
to being overtly political, it is, in fact, still a very political film because
it is asserting a position. Every time you assert a position it has to be
somehow standing against some dominant position you see or somehow trying
to present another way in. I don’t know why, I think I felt that I could
be more influential or helpful or make a stronger statement by making a film.
I’m really bad at meetings, I’m bad at panels, my brain stops working. Although
I sign petitions, I may have gone to maybe one march in my life. Sometimes
I feel guilty, I go “maybe I’m not politically involved enough”. But making
films is all about exploring an issue that I find absolutely fascinating
and difficult That’s my way to motivate myself, to start to do research and
explore it, and I put myself totally within it. In Born In Flames I was totally
within the framework of what it’s about. The women involved in it were who
they really were. By doing the film I learned a lot. I always want to do
a film about something I know nothing about and use that process to educate
myself. So that to me is my main reason.
Catherine Tammaro: I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about
your visual concerns in the film Born In Flames. I’m a painter myself, and
you mentioned that you started out as a painter and then gave it up to make
film. What were your visual concerns in that film, and do you feel that they
were well carried through or well represented? Were you perhaps making a
political statement on the visual sparseness of the film?
LB: Born In Flames was a response to having very
little money. The film was done for no more than $40,000 and no less than
$30,000 over a period of four or five years. I couldn’t pay people very much,
and I had to do it over a long period of time, so my aesthetic had to be
about grabbing images, and getting them without worrying about a well-defined
aesthetic which would combine everything. Starting from an aesthetic of “cheapness”
I then had to develop a kind of visual aesthetic which I decided was going
to be montage. I decided that I would not worry about what each individual
looked like, but really try to create an energy about the juxtaposition of
images. I couldn’t worry that people gained and lost twenty pounds from one
six month period to another, or that they shaved their heads or did strange
things. I had to somehow manage to bind together a lot of images without
having people worry too much about that. The structure of it also reproduced
a lot of political ideas that were at the bottom of Born In Flames. I couldn’t
have an aesthetic unity based on consistent lighting, continuity and all
of that because that wasn’t what the film was about.
It was so much about discontinuity and dysfunction. It was about different
groups somehow coming together and the explosion of when that happened. I
thought much more about diagonals, as opposed to horizontals or verticals
or anything that would lead to continuity of visual experience.
You try to make virtues out of your problems, and with Born In Flames I really
tried to do that. It would have been impossible otherwise, because so much
of the film was constructed in the editing. I would get a piece of something
where there was no script to start with. So much of it was trying to be open
to what the ideas of these women I was working with.
In Working Girls I had to have a completely different visual aesthetic. I
had $100,000 for production, and that in itself is not very much. But when
I decided I was going to make the film all take place in one day I knew that
I had to have a very good looking image that was very controlled, otherwise
people would get tired of looking at it. I couldn’t use any kind of wild
editing really. It actually surprises me sometimes because people say “Oh
my god, Working Girls doesn’t look anything like Born In Flames, like shock.”
But each idea has its own needs. Wild shooting would have been too subjective.
Born In Flames is all about subjectivity, really. With Born In Flames, what
seemed to me interesting was to try to get something very raw whether or
not people really believed in it as actors or not. They were never intended
to be actors. But they were almost playing out their fantasies of the characters,
somewhere between who they were and who they fantasized themselves as being.
In Working Girls it was strictly actors. I was really lucky to get Louise
Smith who played the lead role of Molly because she had to do a lot of very
hard work. In fact we did a week and a half of bedroom scenes and she really
felt like a hooker. By the end she did everything. She is a nice Catholic
girl who’d never been in a film and had never taken her clothes off before.
But she was so willing to stretch herself to the experience. What was interesting
to me in dealing with actors was overcoming their prejudices of what “working”
girls were. They came to rehearsals in stilettos and I made them all go to
the real place that the film was based on and apply for a job so they could
see what the girls who really worked there looked like, what the Madam was
like, and they changed their opinion.
The reason I didn’t want to do a documentary was that I felt that I would
deal with a lot of restrictions, and I also wanted to go into the bedroom
and demystify the sex that happens in that prostitute/”John” relationship
- I couldn’t have done that in a documentary. I did a lot of research and
forged ahead. A friend of mine worked in a particular brothel on 24th Street
and I went in there with a tape recorder and took notes, and met women and
even clients. They weren’t defensive since I wasn’t going to use them - their
images. I was going to base characters on them and then spend a lot of time
writing the script.
AD: I’ve heard in number of articles you described as an anarcha-feminist.
Are you in fact an anarcha-feminist? Is this a label people have put on you?
Are you comfortable with it?
LB: I’m comfortable with it by process of elimination because I never
quite figured out what it is, but I feel closer to it than any other political
identification. I’m so critical of any kind of organized left wing just because
of bureaucracy really becoming another class, and the relationship of women
to whatever organized left there is. So, the idea of anarchism has always
appealed to me simply because it’s always calling into question that which
is. I somehow see anarchism as that. I see it as not necessarily excluding
different political identifications. For example, on one issue it might be
possible to side with a socialist stance, on another issue a very Western
stance. But the thing about anarchism is that it allows you not to have to
be over-programmed. The other thing is about feminists. What gets me now
is people saying that they’re not feminist anymore. Feminism is such a mild
word for how I consider myself, that I’m absolutely a feminist. Anarcha-feminism
to me has always been about stirring things up. You try to constantly ask
those questions which will prevent stasis from setting in. Even at the expense
of sometimes being seen as contradictory or saying things that go against
what you said a year before or a minute before. For me it’s a process. We
all know what’s wrong with Western capitalism and we all know what’s wrong
with the extreme left, so anarcha-feminism - it just seems to be the only
viable identification, if one is to identify at all.
AD: Would you tell us some of the problems you’ve had with your films
LB: When Born In Flames came out I went through this big thing with
the [Ontario] Censor Board. The same thing occurred with my “dick shots”
in Working Girls. This year it’s been pretty outrageous because the film
was appealed, then they decided I had to make one cut. Since I had to make
that cut for American distribution, I said alright. As it turns out, I just
put tape over that scene. But in a way the controversy about the censorship
of my film made it possible for the Andy Warhol film, which has twenty-eight
minutes of a blow job, to just breeze right through. That I resent tremendously.
But the irony is that censorship by the economic market is just as strong.
No distributor is going to take my film unless I cut that scene out. They
say, “Fine, you can have that shot in your film but we’re just not going
to distribute it.” And if it doesn’t get distributed it doesn’t get seen.
So, in fact, that’s a form of censorship as well. I feel that a lot of feminist
issues get cut down in the market place. It’s fine to deal with certain issues
and people say, “Sure, go right ahead.” But it’s harder to get grants, it’s
harder to get the film seen and you get torn apart totally. It’s something
which I feel is highly contradictory and does end up being a form of censorship.
Here in Canada at least it’s overt, you know what you’re fighting against,
which is the only advantage. Still it’s hard because it means nobody can
In the US, there is at least a chance, you know what the situation is. You
can always put something up and have some people come to see it.
AD: What were you trying to say about feminism in Born in Flames?
LB: One of the points of Born In Flames was about “feminisms” - the
plural rather than the singular. That’s been the problem of some political
movements and feminism too - the idea that you have to codify a platform.
There are a million feminisms, there are a million types of different women
who consider themselves feminists but don’t have the same agenda. The idea
of plurality as opposed to democracy is something that is really, really
difficult. Especially where there’s this myth in America, and probably in
Canada too, of the melting pot. To melt together, to become uniform, to agree
on a platform. It will never exist and there’s no reason to have it exist.
In fact, one of the issues, in terms of race, is how do you allow, encourage,
appreciate racial autonomy with all of its distinctions, and at the same
time not discriminate because of all those things? How do you allow people
to not feel that they have to conform to a white feminist program? One of
the things about Born In Flames was that each of the different sub groups,
the Black underground radio station, the white underground radio station
worked together without losing their autonomy. For me it seems really important
to make those links. That was also a response to a lot of NOW [the National
Organization for Women] platforms. NOW was afraid to have lesbians work with
them. They were afraid to have this group and that group because of one national
image that they were promoting, which I thought was highly damaging and still
Now all of a sudden everything has wound up in the women against pornography
movement, at least until a few years ago. It ends up being an issue that
people have to feel one way on. Then there’s a lot of hatred against the
women who try to have another viewpoint. So that the Andrea Dworkin types
are totally against the women who are saying, “Hey look we don’t want to
be censored.” Then there’s the women who are much more exploratory in terms
of sexual practice. It ends up tearing everything apart - which is great
- the media loves it! It allows potent movements to be so diffused that nothing
can happen. That’s scary!
CT: I wanted to ask you a question about the white radio station in
Born In Flames. It’s a different topic but appropriate in terms of a wider
vision of anarcha-feminism. Adele (the disk jockey) makes a statement about
the return of a female prophet, about a spirit. What are your feelings on
spirituality and how they fit in with a unified vision of anarcha-feminism?
LB: I don’t think there is any fitting into a unified vision of anarcha-feminism.
That character, the female prophet, she’s very much like that in any case,
as a representative of a kind of artist/poet type. What generates a lot of
poetry is some kind of a connection to notions of spirit. It’s not a political
notion so much as an artistic one.
She’s somebody who very consciously within the film kept saying something
different. She was identified first with Arabs and she had a headdress on.
Then she had corn rows, and then it was reggae stuff, and then it was rock.
So it was all about that kind of shifting identification which is very suspect.
I wanted her to not be this person you could totally identify with, but somebody
who was hopping all over the spectrum of what was possible. To deal with
some of the ideas, because that’s in fact how people learn and how people
grow within any sort of artistic imagination. Her sources would have been
very different from the Black underground woman whose source would be much
more a sort of local oppression, a certain kind of way of seeing. Her speeches
came a lot from Malcolm X but transposed to feminism, whereas Adele, the
artist/poet, was all over the place. It was all about music too, and what
music generated and the kind of poetry that spontaneously comes out of life’s
events. So, in fact, Adele was very anarchist because her response to everything
was totally spontaneous. It was, “I feel like saying this, and I feel like
saying it right now.”
I personally have been such an atheist all my life that I have no views on
spirituality, except in so far as passion is spiritual, or the need to make
something is spiritual, and the need to come together is spiritual. Spiritual
in that there is a collective body of feeling that ends up being bigger than
the sum of its parts. Not that there’s an external goal - I don’t believe
in “The Goddess”, I don’t believe in any of those things, because I never
have. I’ve never had a God that I had to shift to Goddess. But I think spirit
is about a sense of something greater, and that greater can be what gives
you the courage to keep fighting in the face of a lot of cynicism. So, for
me, that’s the only spiritual knowledge or feeling of passion I have, which
is transcendence of a current situation and hope. It’s the hope that sends
a spark when you do come together with other people. There is a sense of
power. So spirituality is that kind of power, not power over but power to
transform. That’s a magical feeling in a way. But you also know it as an
artist. When you’re writing, you have an idea and every little bit of your
being tingles. That feeling can also be expanded to larger things. Even seeing
those anti-rape marches with everyone with candles - there’s something so
For me spirituality is also about aesthetics. There is something of beauty
that has to transcend the ugliness and sense of despair that you see. That’s
why at the end of Born In Flames, Adele says this thing about turning shit
into gold, which is her own formulation. She’s a wacky person, she’s so much
playing herself in that film and she wrote her own stuff. One of the things
I liked to do with people was to have them, well some of them; say what they
wanted to. So Adele would come one day dressed one way and speaking one thing.
That’s the way that kind of person is. She reminded me of a lot of artists
that I knew. There is a “devil-may-care” and even what one may call political
irresponsibility on the part of the artist. I’m attracted to that, on the
one hand, because a more considered, responsible position can sometimes be
more solid but it can also be a drag. I saw that element in the women’s movement.
One can become a prisoner of logic.
One of the reasons I decided to concentrate on work was that, as I said before,
so much of the work in this culture is spiritually draining. It flattens
you out, there is no spirit. You give time for so little return that it’s
horrifying. That diminishment of spirit is something which I was concerned
about. That’s a point that I wanted to make in Working Girls. There were
a lot of things I know that I wanted to have read through without necessarily
having one statement. One of my ideas in terms of making the film was that
of choice. Sometimes, time to develop yourself is more important than whatever
the culture may think of you renting your body for sex, if you can make so
much more money that way. I really think that it’s a choice in this culture.
It’s something that people just can’t have a ready moral judgment about.
What happens is that the moral judgments are handed down. What is extremely
dangerous is for any woman to have the scarlet “A” on her who has happened
to work as a prostitute for any length of time - for six months, for six
years, for her life. To be seen as a fallen or degraded person or woman is
a horror. That has to be revised, simply because for others to decide who
is degraded and who isn’t is really hard.
When people ask me why Working Girls is feminist, my feeling is that women
have to control our images and prostitution, too. If prostitution exists
in this culture -- and it has existed and probably will exist for a very
long time -- we can’t just say it’s bad, that it’s feeding into the male
trip of power over women. If it exists, we as women cannot only control the
images of prostitution, but all of the works about it -- for example, movies.
If women in prostitution can be seen as not necessarily victims, or if, in
fact, some of them can be allowed in this culture to achieve a position of
strength, it can only help. It’s a feminist position, women being powerful
in any area is feminist. Even within prostitution, if one can say 3,000 years
from now hopefully there will be no prostitution that’s great, we all hope
that. As long as it’s here we need to deal with those images a little bit
differently. I’m just so tired of some of these movies -- high class call
girls or Street hookers who are addicts.
There’s a million kinds of prostitution just like there a million kinds of
feminism. But what happens is that the media makes it look like there’s one
kind, one judgment upon it, and that’s simply not true. We don’t deal with
one kind of businessman or one kind of secretary.
Anyone who knows women who “work” would have a different opinion than mainstream
portrayals of prostitution. Men who have gone to prostitutes have a different
opinion. It’s the people who have never had any experience that buy into
pictures of prostitutes in the media, which is a little much.
AD: What is next for you?
LB: I have a lot of ideas but it’s hard to talk
about it right now because I just finished Working Girls for the Cannes Festival
in May and haven’t had a lot of time to evolve other ideas. I’ve been writing
- I’m a slow writer. I always like to go into areas of the forbidden, so
it will be something – I’m not sure.
At this point too I think that what happens is the more films I make, and
the more expensive they become, the more I start to see what a financially
restricting position I am in. You can’t get grants that will allow you to
make films. You have to deal with ideas that can be a little bit commercial,
but I don’t want to deal with things only on the basis of commercialism.
You start to wonder how practical it can be to make films.
I would also not be adverse to working on someone else’s script if I got
a script that was interesting, just because with the last two films I’ve
either written them in the editing room or, as with Working Girls, written
the scripts myself. I do have some ideas. One is about a reform school, the
other is about a Black jazz musician who discovers a cure for drug addiction.
There’s these different ideas. The drug addiction/jazz musician one is about
a two million dollar movie - God knows where I could get that money.
The reform school one, actually written by Adele who plays the punk in Born
In Flames, is based on her experiences in reform school. It might be a reform
school musical. That’s another example of stereotyping too - reform school
movies are usually horrible, they’re real snake pits. Even the Miles Edderling
film Scrubbers that everybody loves, I really didn’t like. Adele was moaning
on the floor saying, “It’s not like that.” So these things are being written,
and in some cases I’m helping with an overall plot and somebody else is writing
it, or I’m cowriting it.
The other idea I have is the exploration of the sexual relationship of two
people over the age of fifty-five because nobody ever sees sex between older
people. I’m interested in all these things, but which happens first is so
much a question of financing at this point. I’ll never not make movies; if
I have to I’ll go back, to the Born In Flames way which is to shoot once
a month. You begin to learn that there are ways of getting movies made and
it’s based a lot on scripts and who you go to. Working Girls should make
it easier. So one of these will be next. Hopefully not too many years in