The Making Of

Co-directors Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers reflect on the delicate line between rules and politics, working with the Army and the intoxicating elements of documentary filmmaking.

What led you to make LIONESS?

We recognized early on that the Iraq war marked an historic shift for women. Female soldiers on the ground in Iraq were participating in the extremes of war to an unprecedented extent. But missing from the mainstream press were the in-depth stories that exemplified the history-making nature of their experiences. Intrigued and provoked, we began talking to the handful of experts who tracked women in the military. We soon heard about a group of female soldiers called Lionesses who, by any reckoning, were pushing the envelope on the roles women are allowed to play. That’s when we knew we had our story.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

Once we had the names of the Lioness women, it took us a while to track them down. Since some of them remained active duty, we had to get permission from the Army to interview them. That meant working within military rules and not asking the women still serving for their political opinions, just their personal experiences. Since our goal with the film was to create a space for the women’s personal narratives to exist in the culture, we were, for the most part, able to work within the Army’s parameters.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?

Although we are not from military backgrounds ourselves, we were genuinely interested in these women’s lives. Given the new role they had played in Iraq, we saw them (and others in their unit) as crucial actors in an important moment in American military history. We were especially interested in their competence. They did not see themselves as victims and we did not want to represent them in that way either. We sought to communicate that to them from the beginning, and our approach was one of openness and respect. Over multiple visits we got to know them better and eventually were invited into their homes. This enabled us to shoot more verité scenes and gain an intimate understanding of their lives and the choices they made.

How did you get the military to cooperate?

It took a lot of patience and time, but from the start we were always very clear and forthright about what we wanted and why. We also worked hard to understand the process of permissions and approvals necessary to get the access we needed. In a sense, working with the Army was all about building a series of relationships and going through the proper channels in the right order.

What didn’t get included in your film that you would have liked to?

There is a scene when Becky’s younger sister Zulma has to leave her 18-month-old son with her mother and her dying father, and deploy with her unit to Iraq. It is heartbreaking especially when you realize similar scenes have played out repeatedly across America over the past five years.

Tell us about a scene that especially moved or resonated with you.

One scene that always gets to both of us is when Shannon and her father, Jean, drive into the forest to cut down a Christmas tree. It took us a while to edit that scene and we didn’t get it right until we were near the end of the editing process. Only then did it hit us that the film had a strong father-daughter subtext. As it happens, we both have always been close to our fathers and every time we watch that scene we are affected by the tenderness and respect Jean expresses for Shannon.

What has the audience response been so far?

Audiences have been deeply touched by the film. The response by female veterans and servicewomen has been especially gratifying. Some of the best Q&As have come from audiences mixed with military, veteran and civilian members who engaged with the issues raised in the film in a really substantive and thoughtful way.

Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?

When we finished editing, we knew we wanted the Lioness women to see the film before we took it out on the festival circuit. So we brought them to New York for a private screening. It was an emotional experience for us all. When you share something you have worked on for so long, it is nerve-wracking, especially when your subjects have opened up their lives the way these women did. The women liked the film. They have since seen it a number of times and remain eager to join us whenever they can at screenings and press events.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?

Our passion for story and love of filmmaking keeps us motivated. So does a sharp entrepreneurial spirit. That is critical since, at its core, independent filmmaking is this great fusion of creativity and entrepreneurship. When you start the process of making a long form documentary like this one, you never know where you are going to end up. This element of risk and discovery is intoxicating.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

We felt confident that PBS would thoughtfully promote the film in a way that truly reflected its tone and intent. We also wanted to make sure we could reach not only a large audience but also an economically diverse audience. Since PBS is not an additional cost on most standard television packages we knew that it would have the kind of reach we desired.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?

Enough sleeping.

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