May 8, 2008

Lioness- a film by Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers

I've been going to the Tribeca Film Festival for a couple of years now and one of the strongest parts of the festival has been the documentaries. Each year I manage to see a couple that I can't get out of my head. This year one of the films was Lioness, a film about women soldiers on the front lines in the war in Iraq. Yes, women soldiers are on the front lines in Iraq. Just like the farce of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the policy that prohibits women in combat does not reflect the reality of this war. Team Lioness was created out of necessity on the ground in Iraq in 2003 to diffuse tensions with women civilians and children during raids and operations where soldiers were on the hunt for insurgents.

This film focuses on five of the earliest Lionesses, their lack of training for the missions, (because women are not in combat so, of course, the can't be trained for the combat they won't be seeing) their experiences in battle, and what it was like to come back home to a world that doesn't acknowledge or understand your contribution to the war effort. The most moving story for me was that of Shannon Morgan, a young woman who joined up in the wake of 9-11 in order to get money for college. Shannon knew how to shoot and was so tough that the guys requested her to be attached to their missions. Shannon was sent out on the most potentially volatile missions. She got caught in a firefight and had to kill in order to not be killed herself. Killing screws up everyone and when Shannon came back from Iraq with PTSD needing therapy there were no services available for a woman soldier who has done what she has done. The therapists don't have any context or training to help her.

No matter how you feel about war, especially this war, this film illuminates an important issue that needs way more attention. But the defense department can't bring the issue to the Congress or to the public's attention because women in the military is still such a hot button issue they can't afford to be told to pull women out. Women make up 15% of the force in Iraq and with a force stretched thin, losing necessary soldiers is not something that can be contemplated. So again, here we have another story of women being invisible and denied rights and services for political expediency. What else is new?

Directors Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers answered a few questions about the film.

Women & Hollywood: What interested you in making this movie and how did you find out about the Lioness program?

Daria Sommers: Like many Americans we watched the war unfold over the first year and we began to get a sense as a footnote that women were engaged and involved in the war in a way that marked a historic shift in the role that women were playing especially in the army. So we took that as a point of departure and decided to investigate and ask questions to find out what was going on.
W&H: Were you surprised that the Army agreed to work with you?
Meg McLagan: I think we were initially surprised because like many people we had a pretty uninformed understanding of how the military works and how decentralized it is. It's not as monolithic as it appears from the outside. We wrote a letter stating our interest in exploring the issue of women in combat and in talking to female soldiers who have come back from Iraq. They gave us permission and facilitated our visits to a couple of bases. At that point we were starting to learn about the Lioness program and identified names and individuals.

DS: Because the Lioness program happened below the radar and on the ground in Iraq and it wasn't a formalized program, in a way we knew more about the story than the army did here.
W&H: Do you think they keep themselves in the dark because of the controversy regarding women in combat. Is there a disconnect between the reality of the battlefield and the political conversation?
MM: The question is who is having those conversations here. Those conversations and policies are driven by congress and the folks in congress, like Duncan Hunter, who felt strongly about pulling women back from certain roles in 2005 are civilian politicians. They don't have day-to-day working knowledge of what is going on in Iraq. I think the army does know but they can't afford another big debate and they can't afford for Congress to say you need to pull them back.

DS: The whole issue of women in combat is one that is uncomfortable in the culture. It does reflect a disconnect because on the one hand there are people who might respond well, fine, ok. But there are factions in the country for whom this is really an uncomfortable subject.
W&H: In your material you say that the program is still publicly denied and they are not properly trained. There was one woman in your movie Shannon who really doesn’t have the services she needs and by publicly denying the program, and by not providing services it is another way of keeping the women invisible.
MM: We are hoping that people will see this film as not about Iraq but about the women soldiers and their experiences. Our interest is in telling the story from their point of view and putting it out there for people to respond to and talk about. We want to acknowledge what they have been doing and to hopefully move the conversation along to bridge this disconnect between the policy and reality. It allows them to be taken seriously in political terms, it allows them to come to the table politically.
W&H: I've seen a bunch of the Iraq movies both fiction and non-fiction and your movie feels different. Those films overwhelm you with the battles and this seems to be more about the human aspects of war.
DS: Even though the events that trigger our narrative are in Iraq our goal was to create a film that reflects back more to our own culture. In some ways its less about Iraq but it is about the "gray zone" that these women have had to occupy where they are not officially trained to go into combat and as a result, they don’t get the specific kinds of services that they need because they are all created on a male model.

MM: We were really interested in their qualities, their competences, their abilities to overcome the challenges they faced both on the battlefield and then at home to have to take care of sick parents and children. We wanted to look into their multifaceted lives.
W&H: You mentioned that people come up to you thinking that women have been in combat because some Hollywood movies (Courage Under Fire, GI Jane) have portrayed women on the battlefield. That seems to be another disconnect between what movies teach us and what really exists. How do you have that conversation?
MM: We see the film as educating people. Most people say either I had no idea or I saw that film with Meg Ryan and I thought women have always been doing this. For us its been interesting because its been either one reaction or the other. We see this film as educating people in addition to telling a compelling story. We are educating people about something very few people know about.
W&H: When did you start working on this movie?
DS: About three years ago.
W&H: And you just finished it?
DS: Yes.
W&H: Have you worked together before?
MM: No, this was our first project together.
W&H: How did the work relationship come about?
MM: We were friends through the writers room and we were talking about the war and were noticing that women were there but were never reported on in and significant way except for the Jessica Lynch incident. It was a very organic friendship and collaboration. It took us time for us to decide what we wanted to do and then to raise the money and do all the research.
(Women in photo: L to R: Specialist Shannon Morgan, Major Kate Guttormsen, Specialist Rebecca Nava - photo credit: Yori Irisawa)