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Introductions: How We Came to Make "Lioness"

written by Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers
on March 02, 2010

In 2003, like all Americans, we watched reports of the invasion of Iraq. Over the course of the next year or so, we were struck by a recurring footnote that emerged in the press. It wasn't just young men who were fighting, it was young women too — wives, mothers, sisters, daughters.

We soon recognized that a historic turning point had been reached. The rise of the insurgency in late 2003 and 2004 had obliterated the notion of a front line; the support units in which women serve were increasingly in the line of fire. As a result, the official U.S. policy banning female soldiers from serving in direct ground combat was being severely tested, if not violated, on a regular basis. The face of America's combat warrior had changed; it was no longer exclusively male.

Intrigued, we wondered who were these women serving in our name? What was it like for them to be on the cutting edge of history in the midst of such a complex, unpopular war? Our inquiry felt all the more pressing when here at home the image of the female soldier seemed to stagnate in the public imagination, polarized between Jessica Lynch at one extreme and Lynndie England at the other.

As we began work on the film in 2005, our challenge was to find a story that captured the provocative nature of this historic shift. Since neither of us come from military backgrounds, we were starting from scratch. We began with a cold call to Captain Lory Manning, USN (Ret.), director of the Women In the Military Project at the Women's Research and Education Institute (WREI). She told us about a group of women support soldiers who, while serving in Al Anbar province, were regularly sent out on missions with all-male combat units for the purpose of defusing tensions with Iraqi women and children. Known as "Team Lioness," they ended up fighting alongside the Marines in some of the bloodiest battles of the Iraq war.

We spent the next two years filming the women at various locations around the country, from the back woods of Arkansas to Fort Riley, Kansas and Queens, New York. During this time we also worked constantly to raise production funds. Our intent was not to use the film to make a partisan argument about the validity or execution of the war. The military is the largest public institution in the United States and as citizens we felt it was important to learn more about how it operated. We knew the practice of sending women support troops out with combat units was ongoing in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We also knew that the women's experiences in Al Anbar province had far reaching implications, not just in terms of the counterinsurgency effort in Iraq, but as a compelling example of the larger need for a national security strategy that focuses more on human security and less on coercive force. Our aim was to create an intimate portrait with the dramatic power to move audiences and foster meaningful dialogue about what women have been doing and the larger issues their service raises.

Lioness debuted on the festival circuit in the spring of 2008 and was broadcast nationally that November on the PBS series Independent Lens in honor of Veterans Day. Simultaneously, we embarked on an extensive outreach and audience engagement tour that ran through the end of 2009. In partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs' Center for Women Veterans, Disabled American Veterans and ITVS, we screened the film across the country and presented it on Capitol Hill before members of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. The women from our film accompanied us to many of these events.

Over the course of our tour, we witnessed the film's ability to create a space in the national dialogue for the voice of this new generation of women veterans to be heard. We met women service members and veterans, healthcare workers and veteran advocates, legislators and policymakers, all of whom confront the inequities resulting from the unfair policies governing women soldiers and their treatment as veterans. These key stakeholders quickly embraced Lioness as a representative narrative that put a human face on the issues faced by military and veteran women. For this we thank the subjects of our film who had the courage and patience to let us into their lives and turn their story into a film.

In our upcoming posts, we look forward to sharing with you our experiences with and reflections on the growing movement to support women veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

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