Giffords documentary comes as gun debates remain in the spotlight

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

As the cameras rolled, she and her husband, Senator Mark Kelly, nonchalantly opened the freezer. Kelly grabbed a plastic container and revealed that it contains the part of Giffords’ skull that had to be removed after he was shot.

“This stays here alongside the empanadas and the sliced ​​mango,” Kelly said.

Giffords’ response was “Sera, sera”, referring to the song “Que ser, ser” or “What will be, will be”.

The scene in the film is emblematic of Giffords’ opening to reflect but not languish on the 2011 shooting that changed her life. That desire is what led her to allow cameras into her life for two years, all while a pandemic raged.

“For me it’s been very important to move forward, not look back,” Giffords told The Associated Press while in Los Angeles to promote the film. “I hope others feel inspired to keep moving forward no matter what.”

From the filmmakers behind Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Academy Award-nominated documentary “RBG,” the film “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” is in part an intimate look at Giffords’ recovery after the January 2011 shooting that left six dead and 13 wounded. outside a Tucson supermarket. But the film, which hits theaters July 15, is also an insider’s look at how she and Kelly navigated gun control campaigns and then a Senate campaign. The film couldn’t be more timely with gun reform being debated in government, schools, and the US Supreme Court.

“It’s just a fascinating story about how Gabby recovered from an injury that a lot of people don’t even survive,” said Betsy West, co-director. “After meeting Gabby on Zoom, we saw what a great communicator she is. And we had a feeling that we could have a lot of fun despite the very difficult issue of gun violence.”

At the same time, they wanted to strike the right balance of how much to remember the shooting.

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

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

“We didn’t want to dwell on the shooter, but we also wanted to explain what had happened,” West said. “Gabby and Mark did not hesitate to go to the sentencing hearing to make a very passionate plea for life in prison. That was a very important part of the movie.”

Recent mass shootings, which include the deaths of 19 schoolchildren and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, and 10 grocery shoppers, all black, in Buffalo, New York, have brought gun violence back to the fore. On Thursday, the US Supreme Court struck down a New York gun permit law. The case involves a state law that makes it harder for people to get a permit to carry a gun outside the home. The justices said that requirement violates the Second Amendment right “to keep and bear arms.”

Also Thursday, the US Senate easily passed a bipartisan gun violence bill. Weeks of closed-door talks have resulted in an incremental but historic package in response to the mass shootings. The House will vote on Friday.

As in the aftermath of Uvalde, the documentary recaps how gun control debates reached a fever pitch after 26 children and two teachers were shot to death by a gunman at a Newtown, Connecticut school. Giffords and other supporters, including some Newtown parents, were called “supporters” by NRA officials. Having spent time with Giffords and others affected by gun violence, the film’s directors say their voices are central to the narrative.

“To say that somehow Gabby shouldn’t talk about gun violence because she’s experienced violence? She just doesn’t make any sense,” Cohen said.

A crucial element of the documentary came from videos Kelly had of Giffords in 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 the unconscious Giffords. They also include the first few months of speech therapy.

The bullet penetrated the left hemisphere of Giffords’ brain that deals with language ability, causing him to have aphasia. You see in old videos Giffords sobbing in frustration as he struggles to read and gets stuck saying “chicken.”

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

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

Giffords often has to remind people that they still have a voice, even if speaking up isn’t easy, whether it’s about gun safety or other issues. He said he really feels like the climate is different now, but people have to be patient because change is “slow” and Washington, DC is “really slow.”

She plans to refocus on making tougher federal background checks a reality through her Gun Owners for Safety coalition. The bill passed by the Senate would only strengthen background checks for buyers ages 18 to 20.

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

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