Giffords documentary comes as weapons debates remain central

Gabby Giffords, the subject of the documentary film "Gabby Giffords won't flinch," poses with the film's co-directors, Julie Cohen, left, and Betsy West, Tuesday, June 21, 2022, at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Gabby Giffords, the subject of the documentary “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down,” poses with fellow directors Julie Cohen, left, and Betsy West, Tuesday, June 21, 2022, at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello )

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

In the two years that documentary filmmakers shadowed former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, the most shocking moment for them was in the kitchen of her home in Tucson, Arizona.

As cameras rolled, she and her husband, Senator Mark Kelly, casually opened the freezer. Kelly picked up a plastic container and revealed it contained the piece of Giffords’ skull that had to be removed after she was shot.

“This stays right here next to the empanadas and the sliced ​​mango,” Kelly said.

Giffords’ answer was ‘Sera, sera’, referring to the song ‘Que sera, sera’ or ‘What will be, will be’.

The scene from the film is indicative of Giffords’ openness to think about, but not languish during the 2011 shooting that changed her life. That desire 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 to look back,” Giffords told The Associated Press while he was in Los Angeles promoting the film. “I hope others are inspired to keep going no matter what.”

From the filmmakers behind the Academy Award-nominated Ruth Bader Ginsburg 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 killed six people. died and 13 others were injured outside a Tucson supermarket. But the film, which hits 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 topical as gun reforms are discussed in government, schools and the US Supreme Court.

“It’s just a fascinating story about how Gabby came back from an injury that so many people don’t even survive,” said Betsy West, a co-director. “After meeting Gabby on Zoom, we saw what a great communicator she is. And we felt like we were going to have a lot of fun despite the very difficult subject of gun violence.”

At the same time, they wanted to strike the right balance in how many look back on the shooting.

“We certainly didn’t want to shy away from January 8. That’s obviously something that changed her life,” said Julie Cohen, the film’s other director. “But Gabby is ultimately defined by everything she’s accomplished before and after. We wanted it to show that achievement.”

The film also doesn’t shy away from discussing Jared Lee Loughner, the gunman in the Tucson shooting. Interviews with law enforcement officers, journalists and a video made by Loughner explain how he was able to buy a semi-automatic weapon despite a history of mental illness. He was sentenced to life in federal prison without parole in 2012.

“We didn’t want to dwell on the shooter, but we also wanted to explain what had happened,” West said. “Gabby and Mark were not afraid to go to the hearing to make a very impassioned plea for life imprisonment. That was a very important part of the film.”

Recent mass shootings, including the deaths of 19 schoolchildren and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, and 10 grocery store customers — all black — in Buffalo, New York, have brought gun violence back to the forefront. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned a New York gun law on Thursday. The case concerns a state law that makes it difficult for people to obtain a permit to carry a gun outdoors. The judges said the 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 resulted in a step-by-step but historic package in response to mass shootings. The House of Representatives will vote on Friday.

Just like after Uvalde, the documentary tells how gun control debates peaked after 26 children and two teachers were shot and killed by a gunman at a school in Newtown, Connecticut. Giffords and other proponents, including some Newtown parents, have been called “props” by National Rifle Association officials. After spending time with Giffords and others affected by gun violence, the film’s directors say their voices are central to the discourse.

“To say that somehow Gabby shouldn’t talk about gun violence because she’s been through violence? It just doesn’t make sense,” Cohen says.

A pivotal part of the documentary came from videos Kelly had of Giffords at Tucson Hospital and a Houston rehab facility. These include 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 speech therapy for the first few months.

The bullet penetrated the left hemisphere of Giffords’ brain, enhancing language skills, causing her to suffer from aphasia. You can see in old videos of Giffords sobbing in frustration as she struggles to read and gets stuck saying “chicken.”

Giffords said watching those videos might make her feel sad, but she’s determined to be optimistic.

“I’m getting better. I’m getting slowly (better) but I’m definitely getting (better),” 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 TV chef and author Julia Child. “RBG” was a critical and commercial hit when it came out four years ago. The filmmakers say that while Giffords and Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg, who died in 2020 at age 87, are very different personalities, they think viewers will see many similarities. They both have toughness, perseverance, optimism and are at the heart of “feminist love stories.”

Giffords often has to remind people that she still has a voice, even when talking isn’t easy – be it gun safety or other issues. She said she really feels the climate is different now, but people have to be patient because change is “slow” and Washington, DC, is “very slow.”

She plans to refocus on achieving stricter federal background checks through her Gun Owners for Safety coalition. The bill passed by the Senate would only strengthen background checks for buyers aged 18 to 20.

If there’s one message she wants viewers to get from the documentary, it’s “fight, fight, fight every day,” Giffords said.

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