Lizzie Borden Revisits “Working Girls” and Reflects on its Origins

After receiving a BFA in art history at Wellesley College, Lizzie Borden moved to New York, painted, wrote for Artforum Magazine, and made an experimental documentary, “Regrouping,” featuring some art-world luminaries like Joan Jonas and Barbara Kruger, currently being restored by The Anthology Film Archives. Her next film, “Born In Flames,” premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, where it won the special Jury award. Since then, it has been shown in over 100 film festivals, written about in dozens of books, and taught in college curriculums worldwide. In 2016, “Born In Flames” was restored by the Anthology Film Archives. It is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel. Borden has a script about Bob Marley, “Rebels,” currently in pre-production at Bron Studios. She is preparing to direct her next feature, the romantic mystery “Rialto,” set against the backdrop of McCarthyism, and is editing an anthology of writings by strippers and sex workers to be published by Seven Stories Press.

“Working Girls” premiered at the 1986 edition of Cannes Film Festival in the Director’s Fortnight, won best Feature at the Sundance Film Festival, and was distributed by Miramax. It also showed at dozens of festivals worldwide, including Toronto, Telluride, London, Edinburgh, and Berlin.

Criterion’s restoration of “Working Girls” is now in theaters.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

LB: “Working Girls” follows Molly through a day in a New York brothel when she is compelled by a ruthless Madam to stay a double shift, pushing her beyond her emotional limits.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

LB: Some of my friends in the downtown art/film world worked in a brothel like this, which seemed like a viable way to finance their work. Also, I’d never seen “middle-class” sex work portrayed on film before – only streetwalkers, high-class call girls, and women seeing clients at home.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

LB: To consider the difference between renting your body for a few hours a week and having time for your own work or working at a low-paying job for 40-plus hours a week and being so exhausted you have no time or energy for anything else.

I wanted people to think about “labor” in general. Do you feel exploited in your job or by your boss?

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

LB: Finding actors to play some of the “johns” and convincing actors — and actresses– the script wasn’t pornography. Also, dealing with the ratings board because they asked for so many cuts.

W&H: How did you get your film funded?

LB: I shot “Working Girls” with $100,000 from rent money I had in escrow and a couple of grants, one which D.A. Pennebaker helped me get. Two women from the company Alternate Current came on board and created a limited partnership to raise the $200,000 we needed to finish.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

LB: I came from the art world, where women I knew like Yvonne Rainer and Joan Jonas were making experimental film and video along with their other work. After seeing a retrospective of Godard films, I realized I could make films that were part-fiction, part-essay. These all inspired my first films, which were more experimental than “Working Girls.”

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

LB: The worst advice was to not make “Born in Flames” since I didn’t know where it was going – all I had was a premise.

The best advice was from a lecture by Susan Brownmiller, who said to not read newspapers the first thing in the morning — get right to work when one’s brain is fresh.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

LB: My best advice to all indie filmmakers – cis/non-binary — is to tell your own stories. No one sees the world from your perspective. Try to own or master as many tools of production as you can. Collaborate on the others.

If you want to make bigger budget films, offer free services to a working director — research, web services, tech skills she may not know.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

LB: I’m always drawn to films about women on the edge. Now it’s Ida Lupino’s “Outrage.” Lupino depicts the horror and confusion her main character, Ann, experiences after a rape — i.e. a “criminal assault” — through brilliant sound design and imagery, as Ann heads West trying to escape the domestic spaces that judge and define her.

Post #MeToo, it feels shockingly relevant.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

LB: There have been so many stages of the pandemic – some activist. Much of it has felt like “found time,” albeit with anxiety and distraction. I’ve done a lot more reading. I worked on back-burner projects, including a book, an anthology about strippers/sex workers.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive? 

LB: I think there are two paths toward greater inclusivity.

Indies and docs have been made for decades by talented, global, WOC and trans filmmakers which have often been devalued because they are low budget or little seen. Films like Garrett Bradley’s “Time” and Radha Blank’s “The Forty-Year-Old Version” have had a huge effect combatting negative stereotypes, but many indies/docs have been made for less money. If more distribution channels could be created to show them, it could have a big effect combatting stereotypes seen in big, commercial entertainment.

The second is the battle against the industry for parity: there were discussions after BLM and many more WOC have been hired on episodic TV as a result. But how do WOC gain enough experience to be hired as directors of pilots or showrunners? Women in power should emulate Ava DuVernay — hire WOC, providing experience, a step up. The studio system reflects our divided country, so it will uphill and slow, but we should take heart from the indies, [which showcase] astonishing range of experiences expressed by WOC.

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