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Five servicewomen stare in disbelief at a History Channel special on the fighting in Ramadi; they were in the thick of several clashes depicted on-screen, yet are not visible in the footage -- seemingly, they have been erased.

With: Shannon Morgan, Rebecca Nava, Kate Guttormsen, Anastasia Breslow, Ranie Ruthig.

Five servicewomen stare in disbelief at a History Channel special on the fighting in Ramadi; they were in the thick of several clashes depicted on-screen, yet are not visible in the footage — seemingly, they have been erased. While American women are officially banned from direct ground warfare, the peculiar situation in Iraq necessitates they regularly put themselves in harm’s way, their involvement crucial to many operations. Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers’ thought-provoking docu “Lioness,” gender-unique amid the heavy cinematic fallout from the Iraqi war, has a shot at arthouse release before encampment on cable.

Filmmakers’ viewpoint is evident from the outset: If the U.S. is to continue to deploy female soldiers in combat situations (and they are irreplaceable for searching Iraqi women or for placating families during 4 a.m. armed raids on civilian homes), they should apprise them of that fact, train them accordingly, and acknowledge their contributions.

Yet the pic far surpasses any sociopolitical agenda. Helmers McLagan and Sommers get up close and personal with their five subjects, who differ widely in specialty, rank, ethnicity and background.

Supply clerk Spc. Rebecca Nava, a baby-faced New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, stands in camouflage gear in a room full of “her babies” (i.e. munitions), and rattles off the names and specifications of weapons from grenades to rocket launchers.

Redheaded Maj. Kate Guttormsen, a West Pointer, intimately understands the dangers faced by the unprepared women under her command, and finds it hard to operate in the “gray zone” of undeclared combat.

Signal Corps Capt. Anastasia Breslow, of Chinese/Russian descent, a no-nonsense career soldier like her father, reads aloud thoughts from her diary, full of uneasy ambivalence about Iraqi women terrorized by break-ins and her own part in the firefights.

Ace mechanic Staff Sgt. Ranie Ruthig also harbors mixed feelings about her dual role vis-a-vis Iraqi women, coming home to her baby with unresolved anger and displaced aggression.

But the pic really belongs to burly blond Spc. Shannon Morgan, first met shooting tortoises and hunting squirrels in the verdant Arkansas backwoods. Surprisingly, she appears most shaken by her wartime experiences. Plagued by nightmares, she passes many hours with her uncle, a Vietnam vet who fashions homemade Christmas decorations in his workshop.

While seemingly just hanging out with returning soldiers, the pic implicitly raises many questions — are women inherently more compassionate than men, more able to feel a kinship with possible enemies, or does their lack of training make them vulnerable to thoughts and feelings that combat conditioning is designed to stamp out?

Tech contributions are strong.

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Production: A Chicken & Egg Pictures production in association with Impact Partners of a Room 11 production. Produced by Meg McLagan, Daria Sommers. Executive producers, Julie Parker Benello, Wendy Ettinger, Judith Helfand. Co-producer, Stephen T. Maing. Co-executive producers, Diana Barrett , Sarah Johnson Redlich. Directed by Meg McLagan, Daria Sommers.

Crew: Camera (color, HD), Kirsten Johnson, Julia Dengel; editor, Stephen T. Maing; music, Brendon Anderegg; sound, Brian Scibinico. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight), April 26, 2008. Running time: 83 MIN.

With: With: Shannon Morgan, Rebecca Nava, Kate Guttormsen, Anastasia Breslow, Ranie Ruthig.

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