Throughout their very productive partnership, documentary filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West have focused their lens on strong women who have made a difference in our politics and created shifts in our culture. They’ve garnered fame and acclaim for their outstanding films about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG, 2018) and Julia Childs (Julia, 2021). Their latest documentary, Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, chronicles the remarkable recovery of the brave and dedicated former Arizona Congresswomen who was shot in the head while she was attending a public meet and greet with her constituents. Using home movies shot by Gifford’s husband, former astronaut and current Congressman Mark Kelly, as well as their own up close and personal footage, the filmmakers follow the great Gabby through arduous physical rehab and speech therapy. In what is a very intimate portrait of an extraordinarily strong woman, Cohen and West capture Gifford’s warmth and humor as well as her inspiring determination. They chatted with Pamela Powell about making the film, getting to know Gabby Giffords and helping her to reach her goals.
Pamela Powell: What compelled you to tell the story of Gabby Giffords?
Julie Cohen: You know she’s such a spectacular person and we knew a little bit about her story, of course, like all Americans. We remember that tragic day in 2011 when she was shot. We understood that she recovered to an extent and that she was associated with an association called Giffords. But until the producer of our film, Lisa Erspamer, reached out to us and suggested this subject as a documentary and we got to meet Gabby over Zoom and her husband Mark Kelly, we really didn’t understand how extraordinary her story was, and how intense and beautiful her journey, from a medically induced coma to being unable to walk and talk to who she is now. We just hadn’t known how incredible that journey was and how much of it was documented on video tape.
PP: Betsy, Mark [Kelly] is the one who really supplied a lot of this incredible footage of Gabby’s recovery. Tell us how that came to be.
Betsy West: Early on in the process of meeting Gabby and Mark, we discovered that he had set-up a camera and a tripod in her room to document her slow recovery. I mean, this was just weeks after the shooting and at a time when people didn’t know how much progress Gabby was going to make, but Mark had a lot of confidence. He said, Gabby’s going to recover and when she does, she’s going to want to see this because she might not remember what’s going on and it’s pretty extraordinary. Over the next months, he just kept rolling. We learned that he was able to do this because as an astronaut he’d been trained as a cameraman because they learn how to take their own cameras and do their own video up in space. He had the technical ability and he just had the emotional insight and faith to do this. That sure was lucky for us as documentarians because that journey, those weeks and months, are pretty illustrative of what it takes to come back from such a devastating injury.
PP: That recovery process is an arduous one to say the least. You really focus on two of the speech pathologists. Tell me about that focal point and what made you tell the story through that lens.
JC: It was watching the footage of Gabby Giffords in her early days of the hospital rehabilitation and seeing how key her work with the speech pathologist was on a technical level of relearning language, often relearning it through the music centers of the brain, but also on the human level. Her speech pathologist in the in the rehabilitation center in Houston, you just see the two of these women really connecting with each other on a deep, deep level that goes beyond language and that helps the language come out.
PP: Unfortunately, with everything going on in our world today, gun control is still something that we are addressing and haven’t made a ton of progress with at this point. Gabby Giffords, in your documentary, reaches across the aisle and she is that bridge to bring two sides together no matter what their viewpoints. What do you hope that people will take away from this movie and maybe move us forward a little bit with where we are with gun control?
BW: Gabby, once she had recovered after a couple of years and the horrible Newtown tragedy happened, she saw an opportunity to start an organization and to begin activism that was really trained toward the majority of Americans who believed in reasonable gun safety measures; even people who are gun owners or NRA members. That has been Gabby’s focus. She has been part of a movement that has grown up as these mass shootings have continued. Organizations in every one of these places have been started by bereaved parents and friends and just people who cannot understand why we’re allowing this to continue to happen. As we were finishing our film, there was actually some movement toward gun legislation. The first significant bill was passed in nearly 30 years in the wake of the two shootings; the shootings in Uvalde, Texas and in Buffalo and then of course there was another one in Chicago after that. It’s a modest step toward gun legislation but a very important one and I think that Gabby and others feel that it can be just the beginning. It’s not universal background checks but it is background checks for people 18 to 21 and Gabby would like to increase that. They got rid of this boyfriend exception … So there was a significant step and I think that Gabby Giffords, her organization and others, played a big role in that.
JC: You know one thing that Gabby likes to say about her rehabilitation is, I put one foot in front of the other. I take one step and then I take another. And that’s really the same approach that she and a lot of the other groups advocating to make some kind of a dent in the gun violence epidemic in our country take. It’s a small step but you can’t travel a mile without taking the first few steps.
PP: Beautifully stated, and it doesn’t surprise me that that is Gabby’s attitude and reaction toward all of this. Something that is surprising to me, and you do this in all of your documentaries, is that you find humor and heart. Gabby has an overabundance of both of these things. Tell me about finding Gabby’s voice and integrating humor into this movie.
JC: Well, Gabby is both a hilarious person, a warm person, a loving person, and a musical person, and all of those traits we wanted to work into our film. Yes, there are serious issues here but this is just a beautiful human story, it’s a comeback story, it’s a love story and because Gabby’s around and Gabby loves to sing especially ‘80’s hits, it’s also kind of a musical.
PP: Did you have a favorite song?
BW: I love all of Gabby’s taste in music! We love when she’s singing “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” I think that’s actually one of the first times in the film where you do laugh. There’s Gabby who’s having so much difficulty speaking but finding it a lot easier to sing. She and her speech pathologists are just belting out that song and having so much fun. It just makes you feel good to watch her enjoy her life and we’ve had a lot of fun singing with Gabby, mostly off camera.
PP: Is there anything as you two are filmmakers, that you learned about speech pathology or brain injuries that gives hope to those who have suffered a stroke or another traumatic brain injury?
JC: One myth that was kind of dispelled from for us by Gabby’s speech pathologist and also by her own story is that there’s not a cap on progress. A lot of people believe [that] for a few weeks you’ll get better and then you’re just going to be stuck there. Gabby has continued to make progress over the weeks, months, and years following her injury. It’s still an ongoing process. She’s still doing speech pathology several times a week. That’s kind of part of her job is her continuing recovery. It’s 11 years later, she’s still fighting to recover, and she’s still recovering.
PP: What organizations does Gabby belong to that people may want to support after seeing this film?
BW: Gabby’s organization Giffords is her gun safety organization. And then she and her speech pathologist, Dr Hirsch have started, co-founded, Friends of Aphasia which speaks to the more than a million people in the country who have aphasia, most of them from strokes or other brain injuries other than being shot in the brain. Gabby, in a way, is one of the lucky 10% who survive such a horrible injury, but there are many, many others who can be helped by Friends of Aphasia.
PP: How can people watch your movie?
JC: Our film is in some theaters across the United States now and will be on streaming services soon. If you check on GabbyGiffordsWontBackDown.com that will give you the latest information on where to find our movie and meet the extraordinary Gabby Giffords.
PP: Thank you, ladies, both so much for this incredible interview and making yet another powerful film about a wonderfully resilient woman.