An Arkansas "country girl" who never expected to be sent into ground combat, Shannon Morgan became a soldier who experienced the darkest side of war. In Lioness, the film, she struggles to come to terms with her inner conflict between faith and duty.
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Lioness tells the story of a group of female Army support soldiers who were part of the first program in American history to send women into direct ground combat. Without the same training as their male counterparts but with a commitment to serve as needed, these young women fought in some of the bloodiest counterinsurgency battles of the Iraq war and returned home as part of this country’s first generation of female combat veterans. Lioness makes public, for the first time, their hidden history.
Told through intimate accounts, journal excerpts, archival footage, as well as interviews with military commanders, the film follows five Lioness women who served together for a year in Iraq. With captivating detail, this probing documentary reveals the unexpected consequences that began by using these Army women to defuse tensions with local civilians, but resulted in their fighting alongside Marine combat units in the streets of Ramadi. Together the women's candid narratives describing their experiences in Iraq and scenes from their lives back home form a portrait of the emotional and psychological effects of war from a female point of view.
In the spring of 2003, like all Americans, we watched reports of the invasion of Iraq. 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.
It soon became clear to us that a turning point had been reached. The rise of the insurgency had obliterated the notion of a front line and 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. This war was changing the face of America’s combat warrior; 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? While the reality of the changing role of female soldiers was playing itself out on the ground in Iraq, here at home the image of the female soldier stagnated in the public imagination, polarized between Jessica Lynch at one extreme and Lynndie England at the other.
Recognizing this disconnect, our goal as filmmakers was to find a story that would capture the provocative nature of this historic shift. At the same time, the narrative needed to be powerful enough to create a space in the national cultural dialogue for the women’s voices to be heard. After doing some research, we learned about a group of female support soldiers, members of “Team Lioness,” who by any reckoning were breaking new ground and rewriting the rules.
When we first met up with the Lioness women, they had already been back in the U.S. for over a year and it was clear that what they had experienced in Iraq was only part of the story. The rest was unfolding in their lives as they confronted the reality that they were called upon to do the one thing they were told they could never do: engage in direct combat. And they were asked to do so precisely because they were female.
Because neither of us come from military backgrounds, we approached our subjects with an attitude of discovery. We did not assume that we knew what life was like for them and remained open to understanding their world and its logic. As we listened to their combat stories, what emerged was a tale that touches on the universal horror of war but one told from a female perspective.
One of the things we learned during our three years of filming was that the grey zone in which this first group and subsequent Lionesses groups operate can lead to serious consequences. The combat exclusion policy means women are not able to gain access to the same training as their combat arms counterparts who are officially in male combat units. Excluding women from combat also can invite disrespect in that it can lead to women not being treated as full members of the team and create conditions for harassment.
The practice of attaching women on a temporary basis to all male units is a convenient loophole that enables commanders on the ground to reduce violence without violating policy. But because it does not create a paper trail, it can limit a female soldier’s chances of being officially recognized as a combatant. This in turn inhibits her ability to ascend to the highest ranks in the Army and Marines where she can assume a meaningful leadership role and help shape national policy. Proof of having served in combat is also important for determining benefits available to veterans. Without documentation, it is harder for women to get the help they need for combat-related trauma.
It is our hope that LIONESS can contribute to a national discussion of these issues and help us all to remember those who have served and who continue to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Specialist Shannon Morgan - Mechanic
Specialist Rebecca Nava - Supply Clerk
A New Yorker of Puerto Rican heritage, Rebecca Nava has played a number of roles within her military family: soldier in combat, one-half of a military couple, mother of a baby daughter, wife of a soldier serving in Iraq and a female combat vet whose younger sister also deployed.
Major Kate Guttormsen - Company Commander
Captain Anastasia Breslow - Signal
Half Chinese and half Russian, Anastasia Breslow followed in her father's footsteps and joined the military. In Lioness, her diary readings document the hidden history of the Lioness program and the personal experiences of what it feels like to be on the cutting edge of change in the military.
Staff Sergeant Ranie Ruthig - Mechanic
A tall Midwestern woman, ace mechanic, respected NCO (non-commissioned officer) and mother, Ranie Ruthig was often requested by the Marines for the toughest missions. Her observations of encounters with Iraqi women and children underscore the complicated role Lionesses play in an urban combat environment.
Meg McLagan is an independent filmmaker and cultural anthropologist based in New York City. Her latest film Lioness, codirected and coproduced with Daria Sommers, won the Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in 2008 and aired nationally on the PBS series Independent Lens. Other films include Tibet in Exile (codirector, co-producer, camera) and the award-winning Paris Is Burning (associate producer). Her written work includes Sensible Politics: The Visual Culture of Nongovermental Activism (coedited with Yates McKee, Zone Books, 2012) and many essays. She currently teaches at Columbia University and is a visiting faculty member at the Bard Prison Initiative. Meg graduated from Yale where she majored in English literature. She earned a doctorate in anthropology and a Certificate from the Culture and Media Program at New York University.
Daria Sommers is a NYC-based filmmaker whose work includes both documentaries and narrative fiction. She is the co-director and co-producer, with Meg McLagan, of Lioness, which won the Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award at the Full Frame Film Festival in 2008 and was broadcast nationally on the PBS series Independent Lens. Her previous films include Eastern Spirit Western World, a portrait of Chinese artist Diana Kan, which was broadcast by PBS, BBC and CBC and premiered at the Smithsonian, and the half-hour drama Ready To Burn for which she received Panavision’s New Director’s Award.
Daria began her career at PBS and her work has garnered support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Sundance Documentary Fund, the Fledgling Fund, Chicken & Egg Pictures and NYSCA. She has served on the Metropolitan Museum’s Program for Art on Film review panel and been an artist-in-residence at the Macdowell Colony and the Content+Intent Documentary Institute at Mass MoCA. She recently completed Sawadika American Girl, a screenplay about Americans living in Thailand in the shadow of Vietnam War. Daria is a graduate of Oberlin College.
Kirsten Johnson (Cinematography)
Kirsten Johnson shot the film Darfur Now for Warner Independent/Participant Productions in 2007, and Deadline (co-directed with Katy Chevigny), which premiered at Sundance in 2004 and was broadcast on NBC to an audience of 5.5 million people. As a cinematographer, she has worked with directors such as Raoul Peck, Barbara Kopple, Michael Moore, and Kirby Dick. Her cinematography is featured in Farenheit 9/11, Academy Award-nominated Aslyum, Emmy-winning Ladies First, Sundance documentaries American Standoff and Derrida, and She attended the Sundance Writer’s Lab and the Director’s Lab with My Habibi, a narrative feature which she wrote and plans to direct.
Julia Dengel (Cinematography)
Julia Dengel has been a cinematographer since 1993 working on such films as Jennifer Fox’s Learning to Swim, Ross Kauffman’s upcoming TV series War Photographers, Susan Kaplan’s Battle at Oyster Creek, as well as Norman Green’s MTV reality series I’m from Rolling Stone. She has shot in Europe, Africa, and all over the US. She was producer, director, and cinematographer for the PBS documentary Cowboys, Indians, & Lawyers, which aired nationwide in 2007. Her work has been supported by the New York State Council on the Arts, the Colorado Council on the Arts, Independent Television Service, and the Wellspring Foundation.
Stephen Maing (Editor and Co-producer)
Stephen Maing has cut documentaries and programs for PBS, Bravo, History Channel, Discovery Channel, VH-1, MTV, Nickelodeon and for Northern Light Productions in Boston. His most recent editing credits are Comedy Central’s Chappelle Show: The Lost Episodes and the ITVS funded feature, Tie a Yellow Ribbon. Steve’s own short film Little Hearts, was awarded Best of Festival at the New England Film and Video Festival, as well as the Audience Award for Best Short Film at the Slamdance Film Festival. Steve was the recipient of a LEF-Foundation production grant and two Converse-Gallery filmmaker grants for the short films Dance All Night and A Severed Assortment.
Brendon Anderegg (Composer)
Brendon Anderegg studied sound design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He has released solo work on Apestaartje Records, including two albums as one half of the duo Mountains (Sewn, 2006 and Self Titled, 2005); on Psych-o-path Records (Falling Air, 2005); and tracks for Spekk Records and Cubic Fabric Records. Anderegg has toured internationally, performing with artists such as Tony Conrad, Fennesz, Greg Davis, Keith Fullerton Whitman and Tape. Among his work for short films is Thanksgiving by Gregory Misarti (2005), Somewhere In Georgia by Rob-Hatch Miller (2004) and Images From a Dyslexic Mind by James Horn (2004).
Directors: Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers
In Association With
Diana Barrett for The Fledgling Fund
Sarah Johnson Redlich
Editor: Stephen T. Maing
Composer: Brendon Anderegg
Co-producer: Stephen T. Maing
Funding provided by:
- Impact Partners
- The Sundance Institute Documentary Fund
- Chicken & Egg Pictures
- New York State Council on the Arts
- The Fledgling Fund
- Rockefeller Family & Associates
- Open Society Institute
Additional support provided by:
- The MacDowell Colony
- The Content + Intent Documentary Institute Working Films Residency at MASS MoCA
- Working Films