Docurama // Unrated // $26.95 // October 27, 2009
Review by Randy Miller III | posted November 22, 2009
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Documentaries often serve one of two purposes: to illustrate a historic event as it unfolds, or to piece together the event's impact after the dust settles. Yet the dust hasn't settled during Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers' Lioness (2008), not by a long shot. This is the story of women in combat during the ongoing conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan; not just how they handled themselves on foreign soil, but how war has changed them since they've returned home. More than anything else, though, Lioness attempts to shed light on the military's vague policies regarding women in combat-related situations: federal policy still prohibits their participation, but increasingly dour situations can lead to lines being blurred.

The film's title commemorates "Team Lioness", a group of female support soldiers who were sent into battle with considerably less formal training than their male counterparts. Five of these women are introduced during Lioness: Specialist Shannon Morgan, a mechanic from rural Arkansas; Specialist Rebecca Nava, a Hispanic supply clerk with a family history of military service; Major Kate Guttormsen, a graduate of West Point and the group's highest-ranking officer; Captain Anastasia Breslow, a signalwoman whose father's military service influenced her career path; and Staff Sergeant Ranie Ruthig, a Midwestern mechanic, mother and non-commissioned officer. Some are externally proud of their historic roles. All are dedicated soldiers and speak with conviction about the tough transitions between military and civilian life.

The film's deliberate pacing combines peaceful scenes of family life, quiet moments of meditation and brutal combat footage that only hints at the memories these soldiers have taken home. This makes Lioness an incredibly somber affair, even though all of our featured participants have obviously made it back home safely. Their attitudes have dramatically changed---but even more so, the most sobering aspect of Lioness is that we probably wouldn't have heard their stories otherwise. In a director's statement published on the film's official website, McLagan and Sommers admit to approaching the film with an outsider's perspective: neither have military experience, which is precisely why Lioness remains intriguing yet respectful. Simply put, this is an unflinching account of a life-changing event, told by those who experienced it and presented through objective eyes.

Presented on DVD by Docurama, Lioness is a well-intentioned effort that deserves a wider audience. In some respects, this one-disc release supports the film well: aside from the feature-length documentary, we're treated to over 30 minutes of additional scenes and a few minor extras. Unfortunately, the film's technical presentation has not been treated with care, particularly in the visual department. This certainly doesn't make Lioness unwatchable, but it takes an otherwise solid release down several notches.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, Lioness has not been enhanced for 16x9 displays---and that's practically unacceptable for a 2009 release. It also suffers from noticeable interlacing, softness and mild amounts of edge enhancement along the way, in addition to muddy black levels and occasional compression artifacts. Additionally, news broadcasts and other clips shot in a 4:3 format have been cropped to fill the widescreen frame. Some viewers may not be bothered with these shortcomings: Lioness is not a visually-driven film and aims for a straightforward, slice-of-life presentation style, typical of most modern documentaries. Still, this is below-average treatment in every regard and the film suffers for it.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix is low-key but still has its moments. Separation is fine and the talking-head interviews come through clearly, though some viewers may have trouble deciphering a few regional accents. Some of the more intense sequences are blown-out and suffer from mild distortion, but it's hardly distracting under the circumstances. Unfortunately, no optional subtitles or Closed Captions are offered during the main feature or any of the extras.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

Seen above, the plain-wrap static menu designs are basic and easy to navigate. The 81-minute main feature has been divided into a dozen chapters, while no obvious layer change was detected during playback. This one-disc release is housed in a standard black keepcase and includes a promotional insert for other Docurama releases.

Bonus Features

The main attraction here is a collection of Bonus Footage (9 clips, 36:00 total). It's easy to see why most of this material was trimmed from the final cut of the film: though interesting at times, many of these moments would derail the film's generally focused structure. Topics include footage of Rebecca Nava's younger sister leaving, a pair of clips from Fort Stewart, Georgia, a remembrance for Lori Ann Piestewa (the first female American soldier killed in Iraq), footage of Team Lioness on Capitol Hill and more. Like the main feature itself, these clips are presented in 1.78:1 letterbox format and do not include optional Closed Captions or subtitles.

A few others extras are also on board, including the film's Theatrical Trailer (2:00), a pair of text-based Biographies of the filmmakers and a short Promo for other Docurama releases. Though a feature-length commentary (or a shorter interview) with the director or some of the "cast" would've been nice, Lioness does a decent job of standing on its own two feet.

Final Thoughts

Rough and unpolished at times, Lioness remains a compelling documentary thanks to stories that may otherwise have never been shared. Filmmakers Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers have created a film that's paced well: it never feels rushed or overly slow, even though the environment changes dramatically at times. While it may not bear many repeat viewings, Lioness is certainly strong enough to recommend as a stand-alone documentary for fans of the genre. Unfortunately, Docurama's DVD curses the film with a sub-par visual presentation, though the addition of bonus footage softens the blow somewhat. Due to the transfer and the film's lower replay value, however, Lioness is strictly a "try before you buy" release. Rent It first.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.

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