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Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers

Lionesses Cynthia Espinoza, Ranie Ruthig, Shannon Morgan, and Michelle Perry in Ramadi, Iraq in July 2004. Photograph by Lloyd Francis Jr.

20th April, 7pm, suggested voluntary donation of £3
7pm, suggested voluntary donation of £3

no.w.here, in collaboration with the Centre for Research Architecture (Goldsmiths, University of London), invites Meg McLagan for a screening and discussion of her co-authored film "Lioness". The film tells the story of a group of female Army support soldiers who fought in some of the bloodiest counterinsurgency battles of the Iraq war and returned home as part of this country’s first generation of female combat veterans.

This screening takes place in conjunction with a Salon on the visual cultures of activism and non-governmental politics organised by Forensic Architecture at the ICA

Meg McLagan is an independent filmmaker and cultural anthropologist based in New York City. Her latest film Lioness, codirected and coproduced with Daria Sommers, won the Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in 2008 and aired nationally on the PBS series Independent Lens. Her written work includes Sensible Politics: The Visual Culture of Nongovermental Activism (coedited with Yates McKee, Zone Books, 2012) and many essays.

Forensic Architecture is a European Research Council funded project (2011-2014) hosted by the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths University of London, within the Department of Visual Cultures.

The Centre for Research Architecture (Goldsmiths, University of London) is a world-leading centre dealing with practice based architectural research. It brings together several groups of committed practitioners from around the world to work collaboratively around questions of architecture, activism, aesthetics and politics. In keeping with Goldsmiths’ commitment to multidisciplinary research and learning, the centre also offers an alternative to traditional postgraduate architectural education by inaugurating a unique, robust studio-based combination of critical architectural research and practice at MA and MPhil/PhD levels.

Directors' Statement: October 2008

In the spring of 2003, like all Americans, we watched reports of the invasion of Iraq. We were struck by a recurring footnote that emerged in the press. It wasn’t just young men who were fighting, it was young women too—wives, mothers, sisters, daughters.

It soon became clear to us that a turning point had been reached. The rise of the insurgency had obliterated the notion of a front line and the support units in which women serve were increasingly in the line of fire. As a result, the official U.S. policy banning female soldiers from serving in direct ground combat was being severely tested, if not violated, on a regular basis. This war was changing the face of America’s combat warrior; it was no longer exclusively male.

Intrigued, we wondered who were these women serving in our name? What was it like for them to be on the cutting edge of history in the midst of such a complex unpopular war? While the reality of the changing role of female soldiers was playing itself out on the ground in Iraq, here at home the image of the female soldier stagnated in the public imagination, polarized between Jessica Lynch at one extreme and Lynndie England at the other.

Recognizing this disconnect, our goal as filmmakers was to find a story that would capture the provocative nature of this historic shift. At the same time, the narrative needed to be powerful enough to create a space in the national cultural dialogue for the women’s voices to be heard. After doing some research, we learned about a group of female support soldiers, members of “Team Lioness,” who by any reckoning were breaking new ground and rewriting the rules.

When we first met up with the Lioness women, they had already been back in the U.S. for over a year and it was clear that what they had experienced in Iraq was only part of the story. The rest was unfolding in their lives as they confronted the reality that they were called upon to do the one thing they were told they could never do: engage in direct combat. And they were asked to do so precisely because they were female.

Because neither of us come from military backgrounds, we approached our subjects with an attitude of discovery. We did not assume that we knew what life was like for them and remained open to understanding their world and its logic. As we listened to their combat stories, what emerged was a tale that touches on the universal horror of war but one told from a female perspective.

One of the things we learned during our three years of filming was that the grey zone in which this first group and subsequent Lionesses groups operate can lead to serious consequences. The combat exclusion policy means women are not able to gain access to the same training as their combat arms counterparts who are officially in male combat units. Excluding women from combat also can invite disrespect in that it can lead to women not being treated as full members of the team and create conditions for harassment.

The practice of attaching women on a temporary basis to all male units is a convenient loophole that enables commanders on the ground to reduce violence without violating policy. But because it does not create a paper trail, it can limit a female soldier’s chances of being officially recognized as a combatant. This in turn inhibits her ability to ascend to the highest ranks in the Army and Marines where she can assume a meaningful leadership role and help shape national policy. Proof of having served in combat is also important for determining benefits available to veterans. Without documentation, it is harder for women to get the help they need for combat-related trauma.

It is our hope that LIONESS can contribute to a national discussion of these issues and help us all to remember those who have served and who continue to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.


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