Lioness is a critically acclaimed documentary film about Army support soldiers who became the first women in American history to be sent into direct ground combat. Without sufficient training but with a commitment to serve as needed, these young women ended up fighting in some of the bloodiest counterinsurgency battles of the Iraq war. Lioness makes public, for the first time, this 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. 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.
The team’s outreach strategy was centered around several challenges that women soldiers and veterans faced in 2008 that had serious consequences on both human and institutional levels. These included:
After early screenings and consulting with partners, they decided that the most effective starting point was to focus on women veteran’s healthcare.
Lioness screened at festivals nationally and internationally receiving several awards and critical recognition. The film was broadcast nationally on PBS’s Independent Lens in honor of Veterans’ Day in November 2008, with encore broadcasts in June 2009 and December 2011. They also participated in ITVS’ Community Cinema program, a program of free community screenings for selected Independent Lens documentaries in 50 cities and towns nationwide. The purpose of each screening was to bring together citizens, organizations, and public television stations to encourage dialogue and action around important and timely social issues.
Both the broadcast and participation in ITVS’ Community Cinema program created a national and grassroots awareness that significantly bolstered the outreach efforts. The project connected with their core audience of soldiers, veterans, military families, the Department of Veterans Affairs, veteran service organizations, and military medical and mental health care providers.
Lioness also participated in screenings, events, and conferences that reached high-level military and political figures, including:
The filmmakers developed pivotal partnerships with the Center for Women Veterans and Disabled American Veterans, both of which provided Lioness with further credibility and access to official military and political leaders and organizations.
Lioness had the opportunity to take part in an event on Capitol Hill in March 2009. With the help of Lioness’ partners, excerpts of the film were screened before a standing room only crowd of key Congressional members and their staff, veteran service organizations, activist leaders interested in issues affecting military and women veterans, and press. Following the screening, four of the women from the film discussed the impact of their experiences in Iraq.
Since its release in 2008, Lioness has contributed significantly to the mainstreaming of the movement to recognize and respond to the needs of American servicewomen. As a catalyst for military-civilian dialogue, the film has led to tangible change in a number of arenas by framing an important but largely invisible issue in meaningful human terms. Among the film’s notable accomplishments is its integration into the national veteran and Department of Defense healthcare infrastructures as a training tool for VA and military healthcare personnel.
The film has also played a pivotal role in the passage of two critical pieces of legislation improving women veterans’ access to healthcare in the VA system. The Women Veterans Healthcare Improvement Act, designed to increase availability of gender-specific services for women, was signed into law by President Obama on May 5th, 2010, as part of The Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act. The Compensation Owed for Mental Health Based on Activities in Theater Post-traumatic Stress Disorder Act expanded the definition of combat, making it easier for all veterans to qualify for combat-related disability benefits.
More recently, in terms of the film’s long tail impact, the Pentagon has formally committed to gender equity in the Armed Services. This policy shift was influenced by discussions activated by the film between the Department of Defense and members of the House Armed Services Committee and identifies a specific pathway for servicewomen to finally break through the brass ceiling.
Lioness capitalized on a well made, probing, and critically acclaimed film, leveraging their festival, broadcast and community screenings to build awareness around an issue that many Americans knew little about. Through this process, they recognized the importance of the media and becoming a credible source in the press and therefore had the opportunity to provide insight on the issue of women veterans.
A critical factor in Lioness’s success was connecting with preexisting women veteran networks early in their outreach and community engagement and using those networks to build strong partnerships. Through the VA’s Center for Women Veterans, the filmmakers were able to connect the film to major stakeholders, like the National Summit of Women Veterans’ Issues and veteran healthcare providers around the country. Ultimately, through its partnership with the Center for Women Veterans, Lioness was able to gain credibility and to capitalize on the Center’s preexisting network within the VA community. Similarly their partnership with Disabled American Veterans (DAV) helped them reach policy makers on Capital Hill.
The success of Lioness in reaching Capitol Hill and other important military and political players also highlights the importance of face-to face screenings and summits that feature the film’s producers and characters. Throughout its community engagement period, Lioness was screening at summits, conferences, and panels. These event-based screenings provide a more interactive forum to discuss the issues of the film and a more targeted and influential audience. It was through these conferences that the VA came to understand the value of the film as an educational tool in a clinical setting.
The producers also were and continue to be flexible and open to using the film in different ways to serve the needs of the women soldiers and veterans and the organizations that support them.