Case Study – LIONESS


Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers

83 minutes, 2008.


Abstracted from

Jessica Clark and Barbara Abrash: DESIGNING FOR IMPACT

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Lioness is a feature-length documentary film that dramatizes the increasing role of U.S. women in combat, despite an official policy banning such assignments. This unrecognized service effectively deprives women combat veterans of benefits granted to men. The film points to the need for military programs and policies that support appropriate professional recognition, training, and health care for women.

Lioness is the centerpiece of a strategic campaign organized in partnership with ITVS, veteran advocacy organizations, and departments of veteran services. It has produced a range of activities over three years, from family screenings on military bases to testimony before Congressional committees. A November PBS broadcast in honor of Veterans Day (2008), reached broad audiences and framed the story as one of gender equity. In partnership with veteran advocacy organizations that have active legislative agendas, Lioness was screened on Capitol Hill before an audience of legislators, staff members, and advocates, and was instrumental in the legislative campaign that resulted in the passage of the Women Veterans Healthcare Improvement Act (2010).

For veteran services organizations nationwide, Lioness has become a tool for training military and civilian health care providers, treating PTSD, and otherwise responding to the needs of returning women combat veterans. The
film, which was screened by military policy makers, may have also played a role in a recent recommendation by the Department of Defense to repeal the ban on women in combat.



Two companion websites accompanied the 2008 PBS broadcast ( and, providing background material, blogs, and DVD sales information. The film is also available through Docurama, iTunes and Amazon.



Lioness highlights the expanding role of women in a volatile military context where combat lines are often unclear, and the need for gender equity in the military, including:



In 2005, two documentary filmmakers, Daria Sommers and Meg McLagan, noted the underreported presence of women in combat in Iraq. Co-director Meg McLagan says, “We wanted to create a space within the national cultural dialogue for these women’s voices to be heard.”



The initial goals were to:

Target Publics


In addition to general public audiences, Lioness targeted:

Strategic Design


Lioness is composed of interviews, verité footage, diary entries, and archival materials. A long-form documentary, Lioness focuses on five female soldiers who were sent to Iraq in 2003 as support troops and, while assigned to search and pacify women and children, were drawn into direct ground combat, in violation of Department of Defense (DOD) policy. The women speak out about what they experienced, both on the frontlines and when they returned home as members of the first generation of American combat veterans who, because of their officially unacknowledged status, found themselves denied the recognition and combat-related benefits received by their male counterparts. The film was designed for public broadcast, community screenings and educational distribution, as well as for use by health care professionals and policy makers.

In addition to increasing the visibility of women combat veterans, the filmmakers wanted to transcend differences of opinion about war and women in combat by focusing discussion on gender equity. Having no military background themselves, they drew on the advice of women veterans and formed partnerships with military advocacy groups and veteran service organizations. They developed an “inside-outside” campaign with military and non-military partnerships.

The plan was to leverage the film festival launch and national broadcast with events, panels and publicity. Partnerships with veteran service organizations fostered stakeholder buy-in and expanded the potential audience. A staged roll-out and publicity campaign organized by ITVS, which led up to a Veterans Day broadcast, reached public audiences and opinion-makers at festivals, community screenings, and conferences. With clear goals, the film was positioned to engage professional groups and policy makers.



Partnerships were essential to the success of this film, which was designed to reach across boundaries of opinion. Key partners included:

Independent Lens documentaries:

Funding Model


The filmmakers developed a multifaceted economic model composed of grants, investments, and sales revenues, coupled with a hybrid distribution plan that combined screenings to targeted audiences with broadcast and multiplatform sales on sliding price scales. The total budget was $570,000—$460,000 for the film, and $110.000 for outreach.

Early funding from Chicken & Egg Pictures and the Fledgling Fund was followed by continuing production and outreach support, which allowed for flexible response to an emerging advocacy network. Other funders included

The Sundance Documentary Fund, Rockefeller Family & Associates, The Open Society Foundations, New York State Council on the Arts, and private investors. An investment by Impact Partners was repaid with sales broadcast and sales revenues within a year from the film’s festival debut. The ITVS broadcast strand Independent Lens bought broadcast rights and contributed “invisible capital” including branding, promotion, website, resource materials, outreach planning, community screenings, and support for the Capitol Hill screening.

Obstacles & Responses


As civilians making a film about an unpopular war, the filmmakers faced several challenges.

Access: Gaining access to military subjects and earning their trust, especially on a gender-sensitive issue.

Response: The filmmakers avoided pre-judgments and patiently listened to subjects.

Public: Engaging a public weary of an unpopular war and with mixed feelings about women in combat.

Response: The filmmakers worked to tell stories that dramatize the human experience of war.

Common Ground: Finding common ground between parties opposed to the war in principle and those actively involved in supporting military policies.

Response: The filmmakers employed strategic messaging that focused on personal stories emphasizing the need for health care and equity for men and women veterans.



The Lioness campaign has raised public awareness about an important public issue, catalyzed action by advocates, and contributed to Congressional deliberations. Its direct impact is seen in the areas of health care, legislation, and policy.

Carefully strategized public broadcasts, nontheatrical screenings, and strategic partnerships put the issue on the public agenda and reached targeted public, military, professional, and legislative audiences. The film became part of successful legislative initiatives, including the Women Veterans Healthcare Improvement Act (2010). It is a resource for a growing network of organizations and military health care providers, and supports improved services and recognition for servicewomen returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Evidence of quality
Lioness has been recognized by diverse constituencies, including:

Lioness reached a wide audience through televised broadcasts (including a rebroadcast in 2009), DVD sales, screenings, and online engagement, including:

The filmmakers also created a media package with material tailored around themes of family, resilience, and post-traumatic stress disorder, which has been approved by the Department of Defense’s Center of Excellence (DCoE) as an educational and clinical tool for military and civilian health care workers.

The project has been part of approximately 20 professional conferences and workshops.

The film is also widely used by advocates for gender equity in the military. For example:

The Lioness project successfully placed the issue of gender equality for military women on the public agenda through media coverage/broadcast and advocacy networks.

Policy Impact
Lioness was directly referenced in the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act concerning training and documentation of women’s combat service. While this recommendation was not adopted, it represented formal acknowledgment of women’s’ participation in combat and laid the groundwork for future discussion.

It was also:

In March 2011, the Pentagon Commission recommended that the Department of Defense eliminate policies excluding women from combat, as well as other “barriers and inconsistencies.”

Network building
The film project has served as a point of connection and collaboration for a growing network of groups advocating for appropriate training, health care, and benefits for servicewomen. Related events have brought together members of Congress, advocacy groups, and government agencies under the rubric of gender equity, an issue which is supported by many in the military establishment.

It has strengthened the military health care network by hosting a series of screenings sponsored by the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Women Veterans Strategic Healthcare; by providing useful training materials; and by linking state-based organizations with national resources. For example, the film connected the director of New Mexico Department of Veteran Services with the Director of Clinical Education and Training at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in D.C. Together they have held outreach workshops around New Mexico, using the media package.
* Note:

This case study has been slightly revised in November 16, 2011. For details of corrections please refer to: