During a time when our nation continues to mourn senseless tragedies happening at the hands of gun violence, there has been one specific figure pushing for real change in America, being once a victim herself – that person is Gabby Giffords.
The 52-year-old former Arizona Congresswoman and gun control advocate is sharing her hard-fought journey of turning her pain into purpose in the new documentary film Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, now playing only in theaters.
This very personal storytelling follows Giffords from her exciting rise in politics to her life-changing tragedy on January 8, 2011 when she was shot in the head as the intended target during a constituents meeting outside of a supermarket in a suburb of Tucson. The gunman also shot 18 other people that day, killing six of those victims, including a 9-year-old girl.
What would follow for Giffords was an emotional and unpredictable path toward recovery, with much of her inspiring journey fortunately documented early on with a video camera. Giffords has had miraculous improvement over the years, yet she continues to live with aphasia, a disorder caused by damage in a specific area of the brain that controls language expression and comprehension.
I sat down with Giffords and her Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down filmmakers Julie Cohen & Betsy West over Zoom the same week that Giffords was awarded by President Biden the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Now being over a decade since her injury, I asked Giffords what she has learned from her experiences over the past 11 years. Giffords responds with, “To be grateful for friends and family and to live every day to the fullest!”
Known for bringing the empowering story of another iconic female figure to the screen before with RBG about the life of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I wondered what the Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down film directors hope that Washington, D.C. and the public at large will take away from watching Giffords’ highs-and-lows shared up on the big screen.
“Gabby is a living, breathing example of the consequence of gun violence in our country and she has put herself forward to try and do something about this,” says West. “I find it pretty inspiring, we found it inspiring, and I think others will, too.”
Cohen responds with recent gun control legislation progress on her mind, “For a long time, it looked like there’s just no way there’s going to be any Democratic and Republican agreement to do anything about the gun violence problem. Gabby throughout has said, I’m optimistic! It’s going to be hard but I think something could happen. It turns out the optimism might seem like starry-eyed but a little progress has happened.”
Giffords has been not only a symbol of survival and resilience, but continues to be an active advocate in hopes of making a difference. She not only continues to speak at engagements in Washington and around the country, but she also leads Giffords, an organization dedicated to saving lives from gun violence.
I asked Giffords with these mass shootings still happening again and again, does she ever feel like giving up on her work to end gun violence? She quickly responds, “No way, José! Move ahead. Do not look back!”
With mass shootings and gun violence remaining timely issues that our country is facing, I was curious beyond all of the areas that Cohen & West in fact wanted this film on Giffords’ life to become, what did they strive to make sure that this honest storytelling ultimately did not become?
West says, “Gun violence is a serious subject. On the other hand, Gabby’s approach to fighting this problem is profoundly optimistic and in fact, kind of exuberant and fun. So, we don’t want people to come away and I don’t think people will come away being depressed about it all. We hope that people are going to come away just admiring this person who’s had an extraordinary comeback story and who lives her life with so much joy.”
Going back to the source, I asked Giffords what she hopes that moviegoers will take away from seeing her life story so far play out in Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down? “For me, it has been really important to move ahead, to not look back,” Giffords continues. “I hope others are inspired to keep moving forward, no matter what!”
What this new documentary film perhaps showcases best is the 14-year marriage between Giffords and her NASA astronaut-turned-U.S. Senator husband Mark Kelly, a love story that has certainly gone through the unfathomable together.
“Let’s face it – Gabby is married to an extraordinary guy who really stepped up when she needed him and they have a great partnership,” Cohen continues. “She has helped him and it was quite wonderful to get a chance to experience their relationship and the fact that they laugh a lot, they have have lot of fun, and they’re very supportive of each other.”
When I asked Giffords about her teamwork with Kelly, she says of her husband, “He is my best friend. He is so funny! I love him a lot.”
As I began to conclude my conversation with Giffords, Cohen, and West, I first wondered what these filmmakers would like to say to their inspiring documentary subject as they sat right beside her during this interview.
West begins by saying to Giffords, “We want to thank her so much for opening her life to us and we made such a good friend.”
Cohen continues with, “I’m not sure documentary filmmakers are supposed to talk about like love. What do you say? The message we want to give to Gabby is we love her.”
With much work left to do to make America a safer place to live, I left Giffords with one final question about gun violence: What’s your advice to people looking around their own communities and wondering what they can do to help?
“Be a leader. Set example. Be passionate. Be courageous. Be your best!”