Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, a new documentary from co-directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West, tells the story of how former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot in the head during a 2011 assassination attempt and managed to rebuild her body and mind.
TIME spoke with Cohen and West, who have also co-directed documentaries on Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Julia Child, about their new film, which tracks Giffords’ long road to recovery and journey to become an advocate for gun reform.
TIME: In the pantheon of inspirational women you’ve made films about—RBG, Julia Child, Pauli Murray—have you noticed that they all have anything in common?
Cohen: All four of our documentary subjects share some key traits: intelligence, ambition, determination to not give up no matter what the odds, and related to that: relentless optimism. Also, we think it’s worth noting that all four had supportive, loving partners and all were huge fans of music and the arts.
What stands out about Gabby?
West: Her brilliant, welcoming smile is the first thing that strikes you when you meet Gabby Giffords. She is a classic “people person” who finds ways to communicate with everyone she meets despite her challenge with the language disability aphasia. A well chosen word, a gesture, and lots of hugs. As her stepdaughter Claudia says, “Gabby is able to communicate with her touch and her love. It’s a gift.”
Do you know how many mass shootings happened during the time you were making this film?
Cohen: Matching data from the Gun Violence Archive with the approximately 20 months we worked on Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, there were about 1,100 mass shootings in the U.S. during the making of this movie. [The Archive defines a mass shooting as an incident in which four or more people are shot, not including the shooter.] To call that sobering is an understatement.
How do Gabby and her team remain hopeful that change around gun control is possible in America?
West: Gabby and her team take the long view about tackling the epidemic of gun violence in America. Since she began her anti-gun violence organization following the massacre at the Sandy Hook School in 2012, she has helped build a movement of Americans fighting for reasonable gun laws that are supported by the majority of Americans. As a gun owner herself, Gabby in particular has had success appealing to gun owners and even NRA members to pass red flag laws and other gun safety legislation on the state level. And just last month, after years of trying, Gabby and others helped push through the first federal bill with gun restrictions in nearly three decades. It was a modest reform, but having closed the “boyfriend loophole,“ and won the issue of universal background checks for 18-21 year olds, Gabby is optimistic about extending the background check protection to the whole population.
We love that Gabby breaks into song so often, show tunes especially. Did the crew ever join in?
Cohen: Indeed we did, pretty often in fact! One or another of us or the team would start singing with Gabby. It’s kind of irresistible. The most memorable occasion was following the filming of a scene where Gabby is riding her recumbent bike around her Tucson neighborhood listening to a mix from Siriux XM’s “’80s on 8.” When we’d finished the scene and were back in her driveway, Gabby asked us all what our favorite music was. Betsy mentioned the Beatles and Gabby, followed by the directors, producers, cinematographers, sound people and drone operator, burst into an impromptu, joyful rendition of “Eight Days a Week.”
Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, presented in association with TIME Studios, is now in theaters nationwide.
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