In the two years that documentary makers have followed former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, the most shocking moment for them has been in the kitchen of her Tucson, Arizona home.
As the cameras rolled, she and her husband, Senator Mark Kelly, nonchalantly opened the freezer. Kelly grabbed a plastic container and revealed it contained the piece of Giffords skull that needed to be removed after being shot.
“It stays right here alongside empanadas and sliced mango,” Kelly said.
Giffords’ response was “Sera, sera”, referring to the song “Que sera, sera” or “What will be, will be”.
The scene in the film is emblematic of Giffords openness to reflect but not languish in the 2011 shoot that changed his life. That desire is what led her to allow cameras into her life for two years — all as a pandemic progressed.
“For me, it was very important to move forward, not look back,” Giffords told The The New Zealand Times while in Los Angeles to promote the film. “I hope others will be inspired to keep moving forward no matter what.”
From the filmmakers behind Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Oscar-nominated documentary “RBG,” the film “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” is in part an intimate look at Giffords’ recovery from the January 2011 shooting that left six dead and 13 others injured outside a Tucson supermarket. But the film, which arrives in theaters July 15, is also an insider’s view of how she and Kelly navigated gun control campaigns and later a Senate campaign. The film couldn’t be more timely with gun reform being debated in government, schools, and the United States Supreme Court.
“It’s just a compelling story of how Gabby came back from an injury that so many people don’t even survive,” said co-director Betsy West. “After meeting Gabby on Zoom, we saw what a great communicator she is. And we felt like we could have fun despite the very difficult subject of gun violence.
At the same time, they wanted to find the right balance between what to take away from the shoot.
“We definitely didn’t want to leak on January 8. Obviously, it was something that changed his life,” said Julie Cohen, the film’s other director. “But Gabby is ultimately defined by everything she accomplished before and after that. We wanted him to show that achievement.
The film also doesn’t avoid talking about Jared Lee Loughner, the shooter in the Tucson shooting. Interviews with law enforcement, journalists and a video made by Loughner explain how he was able to purchase a semi-automatic weapon despite a history of mental illness. He was sentenced in 2012 to federal prison for life without parole.
“We didn’t want to dwell on the shooter, but we also wanted to explain what happened,” West said. “Gabby and Mark didn’t hesitate to come to the sentencing hearing to make a very impassioned plea for life imprisonment. It was a very important part of the movie.
Recent mass shootings, including the deaths of 19 schoolchildren and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, and 10 supermarket shoppers – all black – in Buffalo, New York, have brought gun violence back to the fore. The United States Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a New York law allowing firearms. The case involves a state law that makes it difficult to obtain a license to carry a gun outside the home. The justices said this requirement violates the Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms.”
Also on Thursday, the US Senate easily passed a bipartisan gun violence bill. Weeks of closed-door talks have resulted in an additional but historic package in response to the mass shootings. The House will vote on Friday.
Much like after Uvalde, the documentary recaps how gun control debates came to a head after 26 children and two teachers were shot dead by a gunman at a school in Newtown, Connecticut. Giffords and other defenders, including some Newtown relatives, were called “props” by National Rifle Association officials. After spending time with Giffords and others affected by gun violence, the filmmakers say their voices are central to the discourse.
“To say that somehow Gabby shouldn’t talk about gun violence because she’s been abused?” It just doesn’t make sense,” Cohen said.
A crucial part of the documentary came from the videos Kelly had of Giffords at the Tucson hospital and at a rehab center in Houston. These included then-President Barack Obama – who is interviewed in the film – and Michelle Obama’s visit to the bedside of an unconscious Giffords. They also include the first months of speech therapy.
The bullet penetrated the left hemisphere of Giffords’ brain which maintains the ability to speak, causing her to suffer from aphasia. You see in old videos Giffords sobbing in frustration as she struggles to read and getting stuck saying “chicken”.
Giffords said watching these videos can make her sad, but she is determined to be optimistic.
“I’m getting better. I’m getting (better) slowly but I’m getting (better) surely,” Giffords said.
Giffords is the third film West and Cohen have produced about a female icon. Last year, they released “Julia,” a documentary about the influence of television chef and author Julia Child. “RBG” was a critical and commercial hit when it was released four years ago. The filmmakers say that while Giffords and Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg, who died in 2020 at 87, are very different personalities, they think viewers will see a lot of similarities. They both have tenacity, perseverance, optimism and are at the heart of “feminist love stories”.
Giffords often has to remind people that she still has a voice even if speaking doesn’t come easy — whether it’s on gun safety or other issues. She said she really felt the climate was different now, but people needed to be patient because change is “slow”, and Washington, DC, is “very slow”.
She plans to refocus on conducting tougher federal background checks through her Gun Owners for Safety coalition. The bill approved by the Senate would only strengthen background checks on buyers between the ages of 18 and 20.
If there’s one message she wants viewers to take away from the documentary, it’s “fight, fight, fight everyday,” Giffords said.