Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers
83 minutes, 2008.
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 (www.lionessthefilm.com and www.pbs.org/independentlens/lioness), 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:
- appropriate professional recognition;
- adequate training and health care;
- legislation; and
- policy changes
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:
- frame the issue for the press as one of gender equity;
- inform crucial debates across civilian/military boundaries; and
- support the emerging network of grassroots and national organizations advocating for services, support, and recognition for active duty women and female veterans.
In addition to general public audiences, Lioness targeted:
- military families, women soldiers, and veterans;
- advocates for policy change;
- opinion and policy makers; and
- health care professionals.
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:
- Center for Women Veterans which monitor’s and coordinates healthcare and benefit services for women veterans: www.va.gov/womenvet/
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the government department in charge of services, healthcare, and benefits for U.S. veterans: http://www.va.gov
- Disabled American Veterans, which provides services for disabled veterans: www.dav.org
- ITVS Community Cinema program, which provides free screenings of
Independent Lens documentaries: www.itvs.org/engagement
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:
- Official selection: Human Rights Watch (London) and Tribeca Film Festivals
- Full Frame Festival, Center for Documentary Filmmaker Award
- GI Film Festival. Military Families Award
- National PBS broadcast on Independent Lens
Lioness reached a wide audience through televised broadcasts (including a rebroadcast in 2009), DVD sales, screenings, and online engagement, including:
- Broadcast: 215 stations, approximately 800,000 viewers
- 4,500 DVDs sold, mainly to professional organizations
- 50 ITVS community screenings
- 80 local nontheatrical screenings
- 15 festival screenings
- Screenings for legislators, staffers, and policy-makers
- 55,000 web visits; 119,505 page views, 78% new visits .
- In addition, health care providers in veterans’ facilities use Lioness as an educational resource in almost every state.
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.
- A Lioness screening at the National Summit of Women Veterans Issues resulted in the purchase of 400 DVDs by Veterans Administration (VA) health care providers for use as an educational and therapeutic tool for post-combat care in VA facilities. Lioness was then introduced into a network of state-based veteran service programs.
- In North Carolina, Lioness was the centerpiece of nine behavioral health training workshops for non-VA doctors serving gender specific needs of rural women veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, were held across North Carolina in 2010 AHEC. This Department of Defense/VA/state initiative was in collaboration with the Citizen Soldier Support Program.
- In New Mexico, Lioness was included in the New Mexico Department of Veterans Services special outreach project to Native American and Hispanic women veterans.
The film is also widely used by advocates for gender equity in the military. For example:
- The Center for Women Veterans, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs helped organize the screening on Capitol Hill and facilitated the adoption of the film as a clinical tool in VA hospital and clinics.
- Disabled American Veterans was a primary partner in support of Senator Patty Murray’s Women Veterans Health Services Act, signed by President Obama in 2010.
- The film was screened at the Gender Justice Conference, Center for the Rule of Law at West Point, attended by 500 graduating cadets who will deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Lioness project successfully placed the issue of gender equality for military women on the public agenda through media coverage/broadcast and advocacy networks.
- Media coverage After a New York Times article about the film appeared late in 2007, the filmmakers were asked to produce a Veterans Day video op-ed for the Times website in advance of broadcast. At the time of broadcast, extensive coverage in national and local press outlets, highly favorable reviews, and radio and television appearances by the filmmakers and women in the film humanized the issue, established the film’s credibility, and brought the issue to diverse audiences.
- Advocacy networks Links with legislators, military personnel, and activists brought the film to the attention of influentials. The film played a role in Congressional deliberations on military policies. In March 2009, Disabled American Veterans and ITVS, together with the filmmakers, organized a standing-room only screening and press conference on Capitol Hill. Lioness was cited in hearings related to documentation of combat service, women’s healthcare, and training; women who appeared in the film were invited to testify.
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:
- influential in hearings on the Women Veterans Healthcare Improvement Act and the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act (2010).
- echoed in the Military Leadership Diversity Commission draft report which states that current combat exclusion policies do not reflect the realities of contemporary warfare and keep women out of key assignments that lead to career advancement.
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.”
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.
This case study has been slightly revised in November 16, 2011. For details of corrections please refer to: