Judge Katie Herrell is glad the only time she sees combat is playing Wii tennis.
There for the action. Missing from history.
Rules are meant to be broken.
Facts of the Case
U.S. women are not allowed in combat, or so says American federal policy. But on the ground in Iraq what's on paper means very little when there's a war to be fought. A war that needs female soldiers to frisk the female enemy, or comfort the enemy children, or participate in a violent counterinsurgency battle. Lioness is the story of five military support ladies who suddenly found themselves in battles of the most violent nature—U.S. policy be damned.
Lioness starts after it is all over—physically, at least. When the audience is introduced to the five stars of the documentary, they are off-duty at home, recently returned from war. They are mothers, and wives, hunters, and writers. As the movie opens with idyllic pastoral settings or the cramped surroundings of small apartments these initial scenes will stand in stark contrast to the military footage that soon punctuates the screen. The introductory scenes are chosen for their relative peacefulness and mundaneness, but they are obviously a set-up: a calm before the look back at the storm.
Soon after we meet the Lionesses—five people linked by the fact that they are women who went to Iraq in supporting roles and found themselves in bloody battle—we begin to relive the past several years of their lives. There are the stories of why they chose the military, interviews with the family about their worry and disbelief, and the slow unraveling of how what was intended to be a supporting, sideline role in Iraq turned into a firefight. All of these stories are interspersed with transitional shots—scenic or long pauses—a nice tactic for tackling a heavy subject. Brendon Anderegg, the film's composer, provides a soothing soundtrack throughout.
How these women came to find themselves in combat is told through two perspectives and each perspective is illustrated with footage from the war itself. First there are the interviews with the male superiors. These interviews are relatively buttoned-up and safe—these are career military men after all—but there is a current of helplessness that runs through the interviews. These men didn't necessarily want the women in battle, and they knew that policy forbade it, but the Iraq War is a modern war and they were hamstrung in many instances. American men could not frisk Iraqi women, and they could not calm the children as effectively. The women, nicknamed Lionesses, were essential to on-the-ground interactions with Iraqis. And that essentialness resulted in a trickle-down, in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time outcome: the women were directly involved in a counterinsurgency battle in Ramadi, becoming the first group of U.S. women in direct combat (or so we're told).
The second perspective of how these women came to be in battle is told through interviews with the women themselves. Noticeably, the women are very frank in their re-telling of the events. This is not a sobbing, dramatic bunch—they are military women after all. But there is an undercurrent of disbelief and distrust about how their roles were turned upside down. It's not that they were opposed, necessarily, to being in direct combat. It's that they were opposed to how haphazardly they were thrown into battle. And that haphazardness, along with the sheer death and destruction they witnessed, is obviously scarring to these ladies.
This movie promotes itself as telling the untold story of women in combat. And it is about that. But it is more about how the women came to be in battle and how they emerged from battle. One scene has the women gathered, post-war, in someone's living room, watching footage of their big battle from The History Channel and commenting on how their contribution is never mentioned. But the scene changes before any truly poison-tipped words can be shared and the setting and set-up seems a bit contrived, as if it is intended to showcase how put out the women feel by not receiving as much recognition as their male peers. That feeling doesn't carry through the rest of the film very prominently, though. Overall, Lioness conveys that the women are grappling with a much more personal battle than a public recognition battle. They are trying to figure out how to process everything they experienced before, during, and after the combat zone. Since they were not technically supposed to be in combat, not only was there no blueprint for how they were supposed to be trained for combat, there is no blueprint for how they're supposed to cope post-combat. That's the real message of this film.
The 36 minutes of Bonus Footage features an interesting five-minute spot about "Women in the Military." It chronicles the rise of women in war from nurses to the Lionesses. While it seems a bit spartan on the modern-day women of war prior to the Lionesses, it is an eye-opening look at how far ladies in uniform have come. Another interesting spot in the Bonus Footage covers Fort Stewart and the extensive, and likely expensive, role-playing scenario they set up there. At Fort Stewart Afghans play Afghans while American soldiers play American soldiers. As one woman soldier summarize, Fort Stewart is great place to fail and learn. The final eight minutes of the Bonus Footage is titled "Team Lioness Goes to Capital Hill" and documents the Lionesses trip to Washington D.C. It is an interesting look at the rhetoric of the government, the curiosity of the media, and the truthfulness of the Lionesses themselves, much like the film itself.
The audio quality on Lioness is very clear and well paced. I have a hard time understanding a lot of accents, and one of the women is very much from the South. But I never strained to understand her or her friends and family…even when those accents were punctuated by gun shots or alcohol. A lot of the narrative of Lioness is told by voiceovers and those voiceovers have a slightly elevated quality; they stand apart from the action and the scenery. This is partially due to excellent sound editing, where background noise and music is pulled away and inserted at just the right moments. The music, mostly classical in nature, is never overwhelming but an appropriate accompaniment to the dialogue and the overall story.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
At times the movie is jumpy and certainly not all of the women are given equal face time. It is easy to imagine hours and hours of footage—both from this particular production and from the war in general—that swirled at the directors' (Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers) feet as they pieced together the film. (Certainly, the 36 minutes of extra footage on the DVD attests to this.) How do you chose what's important when it's all about life and death? A more measured pacing and more even focus on all the women might have benefitted this film.
I also have to wonder what sort of stories the women, and men, tell when they are off-camera and not censored at the least. It's hard to imagine that there is no gender bashing or stereotyping in the military, but the movie tiptoes around the topic.
Overall, Lioness is an honest look at the experiences of five women and their superiors, on a heated battlefield in Iraq. Every woman has an interesting story to tell and they tell it openly and with clarity—even clarity about their confusion. This is truly an untold story, told eloquently and sincerely, with interesting visual twists: the calm before the story scenario, and the on-the-move interviews (such as when one woman hunts for squirrels while pouring her heart out to the camera). This film is as much a cinematic success as a storytelling one.
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