‘RBG’ Filmmakers Give Us a New Jewish Heroine: Gabby Giffords

Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s film 'Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down’ is a powerful portrait of the U.S. politician-turned-gun activist, and is the latest in their series of documentaries celebrating brilliant Jewish women

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Gabby Giffords, center, with directors Betsy West, left, and Julie Cohen at the world premiere of "Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down," during the South by Southwest Film Festival in March.
Gabby Giffords, center, with directors Betsy West, left, and Julie Cohen at the world premiere of "Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down," during the South by Southwest Film Festival in March.Credit: Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP

Former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her husband, astronaut-turned-senator Mark Kelly, smile mischievously as they reveal the unusual keepsake stored in their kitchen freezer.

In a key scene from the new documentary “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down,” Kelly rummages in the freezer, pulls out a plastic container and carefully unwraps a large piece of Giffords’ skull, which was shattered and removed following the devastating bullet fired by a gunman at a Tucson campaign event in January 2011.

The grim reminder of their family calamity – kept “next to the empanadas and frozen mangoes” – and the humor with which they display it embodies the couple’s relentless determination to cheerfully move forward with their lives in the shadow of devastating tragedy.

When documentarians Julie Cohen and Betsy West first met the couple, over Zoom at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, they were exploring the idea of making the film. One of the first things the couple showed them was the contents of their freezer. Retrieving and preserving the skull fragment from the surgeons who removed it from Giffords’ brain was also a reflection of Kelly’s belief that his wife’s full story would need to be told, even while those around her were still in shock.

That expectation, and his experience making video diaries as an astronaut, led Kelly to begin filming Giffords’ recovery days lying unconscious on a hospital bed, her life teetering in the balance.

Cohen and West, who were chosen by Giffords and Kelly to tell that story, brought their film to the DocAviv festival for its first international screening last week, ahead of its theatrical release in July.

Like many other opportunities for the two filmmakers in recent years, this one came as a result of their acclaimed 2018 documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“Giffords is a huge ‘RBG’ fan,” Cohen says. In that initial Zoom meeting, Giffords even lifted her feet in front of the screen to reveal that she was wearing socks emblazoned with the late Supreme Court justice’s image.

Gabby Giffords taking part in a reenactment of her swearing-in, on Capitol Hill in 2011, three days before she was almost murdered in Tucson, Arizona.Credit: Susan Walsh / AP

Grimly appropriate

“Won’t Back Down” tells the dramatic story of the aftermath of the Tucson shooting, when a 22-year-old man armed with a machine gun sprayed a campaign event with bullets, killing six people and nearly killing Giffords (it was falsely reported in the media at the time that she had died). Using the exclusive footage of her physical recovery recorded by Kelly, the film follows her physical recovery and multiple surgeries, and ongoing struggle with aphasia caused by her injury.

After realizing that her condition – which continues to make word retrieval and speaking extremely difficult – would force her to step down from politics, Giffords embarked on a new career. She became an activist against gun violence, founding an eponymous organization that is “dedicated to saving lives from gun violence.”

The film also tells the moving love story and unique relationship between Giffords and Kelly, and his decision to take his wife’s place on Capitol Hill, successfully running for the U.S. Senate in 2020.

Gabby Giffords and Sen. Mark Kelly together, in a scene from "Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down."Credit: Dyanna Taylor

The film’s timing couldn’t be more grimly appropriate in the United States, given the current political turmoil over gun control after the deadly May shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde that, combined, killed 31 children and adults.

Alongside Giffords’ personal story is the depressing saga of the U.S.’ failure to address gun control in the wake of events such as Tucson and Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 26 people were murdered in December 2012. These attempts are recounted by figures including former President Barack Obama, who, along with Democrats in Congress, tried and failed to institute meaningful change.

The film also included a surprise for the Israeli audience at DocAviv: the Jewish side of Giffords’ story, represented by her bat mitzvah last year. Giffords’ grandfather was a Lithuanian immigrant named Akiva Hornstein, who changed his name to Gif Giffords when he decided to open an auto service business in Arizona.

“I guess he did it because it was a cool sort of cowboy name – a Jewish boy’s idea of what a guy from the American West should be called,” Cohen says. “Being Jewish actually means a lot to Gabby, and she’d had the idea in mind to have an adult bat mitzvah going back to before she was shot.”

Her decision to move forward with the ceremony marks an emotional moment in the film and, for Cohen, a moving reflection while filming it.

Growing up, she had been fascinated by the Jewish mystical idea of “Lamed Vav Tzadikim” (aka “Lamedvavniks” in Yiddish) – the kabbalist legend that “there are 36 people around at any given time whose righteousness keeps the world afloat.”

Former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords speaking on Capitol Hill about bipartisan legislation on gun safety, in March 2015.Credit: Carolyn Kaster / AP

“It was an idea that I had learned about as a teenager, was really interested in and then had completely forgotten until we were in the home of Gabby’s friend, Joanie, with the rabbi. Gabby was practicing for her bat mitzvah and singing beautifully in Hebrew with her tallis on and the mountains of Arizona behind her with the sun setting. It totally hit me all of a sudden: I think I’ve met a Lamedvavnik, and I think it’s Gabby.”

Indeed, the portrait of the spirited and optimistic Giffords in “Won’t Back Down” could inspire even the most entrenched cynic, as she painstakingly rehearses her words for every public appearance, doggedly pursues her campaign for gun control, and coaches and supports her husband in his maiden attempts at entering political life.

It also celebrates the joy she continues to pursue despite her limitations: while she struggles to retrieve words in speech, she easily recalls lyrics to songs she knew before the shooting, and sings them perfectly. Among them is the Tom Petty classic, which the filmmakers say was chosen as the film’s title because it strongly reflects Giffords’ attitude toward anyone who tries to impede her progress.

Gabby Giffords in a scene from "Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down."Credit: Dyanna Taylor

Gender niche

Cohen and West also screened their other two post-“RBG” films during DocAviv: “My Name is Pauli Murray,” a profile of a pioneering attorney and civil rights activist; and “Julia,” which chronicled how the famous television chef Julia Child conquered the male-dominated world of high-end French cuisine and transformed the U.S. culinary landscape.

Asked what the subjects of their films have in common, West says “they all share incredible persistence: the ability to push through challenges and failures and bad times, and optimism as well. Like Gabby Giffords always says, ‘You just keep on – just keep going.’”

The two co-directors fully embrace the gender niche that has become their trademark: chronicling the adventures of brilliant and feisty women determined to change the world.

“We love telling women’s stories,” Cohen says. “In America, Israel, and elsewhere I guess, these are stories that are traditionally under-told, often trivialized and many times just kind of ignored altogether. That’s obviously a travesty in historical terms, but as filmmakers – and I feel bad saying it – it’s good news because it leaves us a field of rich stories to tell that often haven’t been told fully.”

West adds, however, that the narratives that compel them to move forward with a project offer something beyond the personal stories of their subjects.

“We like making films about significant people who are doing important things. We’re always both telling a personal story and getting to a larger issue,” she says. “The focus of ‘RBG’ was, of course, RBG herself, but we also managed to talk a lot about the 14th Amendment along with other constitutional issues. Gabby’s story is similarly twofold. It’s first of all about her extraordinary persistence and her attitude, how she has taken this tragedy and faced it and turned her life to do something really good. The anti-gun violence group she leads, along with other anti-gun violence organizations in the United States, are making a real difference on the state level.”

A panel discussion following the screening, sponsored by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel in celebration of its 50th anniversary, included the two directors and Israel’s former Supreme Court president, Dorit Beinisch.

Beinisch noted a parallel between the two Jewish heroines of Cohen and West’s films: the central role played by strong, supportive husbands in their journeys.

She said Kelly’s devotion to Giffords brought tears to her eyes and reminded her that Ginsburg, too, relied on “the support of her husband all the time behind the scenes.”

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaking after the screening of "RBG" in Jerusalem, in July 2018.Credit: Caron Creighton / AP

West nodded in agreement. “RBG used to say that without Marty, she would not have become a Supreme Court justice. And I think that that’s true. He absolutely believed in her and encouraged her. After she made so many inroads in fighting for gender equality, I think it was Marty who understood what this meant and the possibility that she could become a great jurist.”

Cohen added: “We think of feminist love stories as [an element] of the genre of films that we like to make. I think it’s no coincidence that these women who have been able to accomplish extraordinary things in the world have husbands who take on the unusual role – for a man – of being a strong support system for them. It’s been understood for centuries that the great men of history had a wife behind the scenes playing the role of supportive adviser, calmer-downer, feeder, raiser of the children. Nobody thinks twice about those women, because that’s what they’re ‘supposed’ to do. With men, it was and still is a bit unusual for a husband to be willing to take that, you know, secondary role.”

In the Giffords-Kelly story, she pointed out, there is the additional “unusual twist” of Kelly being an extremely prominent figure on his own as a former U.S. Navy pilot and space shuttle commander, throwing himself into taking care of his wife and pursuing her goals with as much dedication as he had given to his own career. His Senate run, Cohen said, was ultimately a reflection of his love for his wife.

Sen. Mark Kelly, Gabby Giffords' husband, leading a personal tour through the U.S. Capitol last month.Credit: CHIP SOMODEVILLA - AFP

“The extraordinary amount of himself that he was willing to pour in to help her recover,” Cohen added, “is beyond what anyone expects a spouse to play. He played it so, so beautifully. And then he took the further step of carrying on her political career. Though a brilliant guy, he is not a natural politician the way she is … he’s taken a job that he wouldn’t have otherwise taken – it wasn’t for himself, it was for them as a couple. That’s really remarkable and a special kind of romance to witness.”

“Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” is released in U.S. movie theaters on July 15.

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